The Fullest Book Club: Reductionism in Art and Brain Science

Books on brain science may not top your reading list this year but for those who are psychology junkies, this one’s for you. Eric Kandel’s new non-fiction book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, explores the method of Reductionism as an approach to understanding abstract art. Simply put, Reductionism is a psychological theory of over-simplifying human behavior. In his book, Kandel applies the theory to both the creation and the interpretation of abstract art.

Kandel underlines the Reductionist approach with two binary methods of brain processing. In order for the brain to process a visual image it uses either bottom-up processing or top-down processing. While bottom-up is the detection of an image that the brain has evolved to inherently understand, top-down processing is a function that uses the individual’s past experiences to construct context and meaning.

Abstract art dismantles perspective through the absence of familiar surroundings and scenery inherent in reality, thus forming a gap the viewer must fill internally to gather meaning from the artwork.

Abstraction requires a combination of the processes beginning with bottom-up.

As an example, a circle with two dots as eyes and a line for the mouth does not need further detail or thought to know the circle is a face. This is bottom-up processing where the brain has become hard-wired to perceive this as a face. However, abstract art departs from common forms, objects, lines and colors that we can easily pair meaning to. The scarcity of the familiar produces a gap in interpretation that must be completed using what one has previously experienced.

Kandel illustrates this as top-down processing, functioning on the bridge of the break in continuity. This is done by using an imaginative context aspect in the brain known as the hippocampus, a structure explicitly used for memory of people, places and objects. The infinite experiences one can recall generates the unique and differing responses to art as the memories crystallize together with what the viewer knows is true and what they think is happening in the artwork.  

Abstract Expressionism was born out of the New York School of Painters in the 1960’s by a desire to leave behind the known and create a truly new experience inspired by Surrealist notions of art from the unconscious mind. With modest beginnings of extreme exaggeration in figuration, Abstraction graduated further into Reduction.

Seminal Abstract Expressionist and color field painter, Mark Rothko abandons all human forms from his later work using rich hues of color palettes to create movement and light on the canvas. It is this absence of form and figuration that challenges his viewers through stacked rectangles and planes of alluring pigments to also abandon previous conceptions and perceive with an open mind. The ambiguity and depth of the canvas create a pleasant harmony that Kandel describes as invoking “mystical, psychic [and] religious references” in the viewers. The visual signals stemming from the eye, paired with images from memory, become the formula to ‘perceptual completion’ in the visual cortex. In turn, the memories derived from the hippocampus during top-down processing allow the viewer to identify elements from Rothko’s obscurity, resolving the ambiguity into that which relays the resolution into a tangible feeling or thought.

What Abstract Expressionism does so well is, rather than ask a viewer to look blankly at a pictorial representation of a scenario, it requires viewers and artists such as Rothko to actively complete the work, creating a sense of satisfaction by stimulating our creative selves — ultimately leading to sensation.

While diving into the intricacies of memory architecture, visual information pathways and circuitry, as well as detailed experiments of specific cell purposes, Kandel delineates the brain using a unique order of perception imperative to the interpretation of art, and in turn, constructs meaning from absence. He ties together these two processing methods with deep analysis and remarkably researched examples of Mark Rothko’s emotive and ethereal work and that of gestural painters, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

Kandel explains a primary reason for this present line of inquiry is due to the vision that art is “quintessentially human.” What remains is the unanswered question of how this approach is realized in minds that operate from different scopes of thinking in terms of those who operate predominantly from either the left side of the brain or the right. How then, does a logical and analytical ‘left-brainer’ use bottom-up and top-down processes to discern a work of art compared against an intuitive and more creative ‘right-brainer?’ This line of questioning may never be solved, as the memory stored in the hippocampus will never be the same in two people.

Overall, Kandel’s well-researched book achieves the task of taking complex brain functions with artistic ideological contexts and molds them into an accessible hypothesis on Reductionism. The viable approach helps us understand not only abstract art where forms and shapes are unfamiliar, but also, creates a foundation towards understanding how the brain perceives visual material beyond the prospects of an artwork.

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