Turner, Mark, ed. 2006. The artful mind: Cognitive science and the riddle of human creativity. Oxford University Press.

Turner, a specialist in cognitive linguistics and Institute Professor at Case Western Reserve University, has put together a book that examines the creative capacity of humans demonstrated in various facets of art. There are six parts to the book as well as a Prologue and Epilogue by Turner.

In the Prologue, Turner outlines the “riddle” as “how we acquired modern minds” that could contribute ideas and efforts to science and the humanities, “from literature and music to dance and art.” His conclusion is somewhat circular: “To have a cognitively modern human mind is to be robustly artful, but conversely he addresses the question “to the next generation of scientists and scholars who seek to explain the wonders and mysteries of the artful mind.”

Part I is on Art and Evolution, with contributions by Melin Donald (also at Case Western Reserve) and Terrence Deacon (UC Berkeley). It is not surprising that the book begins with this topic by Donald because evolution, to most neuroscientists, must be responsible (if that is possible) “for the co-evolution of biological and cultural forces” (p.7). These give rise to art, which is universal and unique to humans. Donald sees this process as “cumulative and scaffolding” and outlines both the external forms and the cognitive domains that he believes took place. Humans begin with pantomime, using the whole body and proceed to chant, rituals, acting, costume, painting, sculpture, popular music, oral storytelling, and so on, until the pinnacle of modern poetry and music is reached. Where do these cognitive functions come from? They are all “ultimately products of brain activity” (p. 10) and art is singled out as a “distinctively human form of cognitive activity” that “originated in the earliest stages of hominid evolution” (p. 19). What makes it so distinct in cognitive style is the early adaptation of mimetic expression (rituals, puiblic actions and gestures in the particular society).

Deacon focuses on the abstract notion of “The aesthetic faculty” and proposes “that symbolic abilities are a critical basis for… mental operations” (p. 21). He recognizes that art cannot be divorced from culture and “even within such constraints, it is still difficult to usefully define and categorize what constitutes art” (p. 21). This is because neurological development does not sufficiently explain artistic activities. Furthermore “we tend to consistently underestimate the constructive power of extra-neuronal, supra-cognitive factors, and correspondingly overestimate what must be contributed by special features of human brains” (p. 29). Part of the extra- and supra- consists of what Deacon calls symbol, which includes language, and which he demonstrates in a series of schematic depictions of logical (and complex) symbolic relationships that involve blending and emotional features. His conclusion is that “The evolution of symbolic abilities and correlated interpretive predisposition, along with cultural elaboration of supportive symbolic interpretive systems, has made possible the creation and exploration of unprecedented cognitive and experiential domains” (p. 51). Thus art, like ethics, is emergent and grows from “capacities that make us unique among animals” (p. 52).

Part II “Art and Emotion” has chapters by Francis Steen (UCLA) and David Freedberg (Columbia University and Director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America).

Steen challenges the evolutionary assumption that beauty is the result of adaptation (in particular, habitat choice and mating) and proposes instead that the aesthetic experience is its own goal, i.e., it is subjective and complex beyond any evolutionary explanation. Steen first recounts Keats and his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to show the “rich possibilities of an artistic, fictive world” and how, once  constructed are, “unburdened by the challenges of reality” (p. 59). He follows with other examples, including a poem by Wordsworth to show the “particularly rich account of the phenomenology of the experience of natural aesthetics” (p. 64). Human beauty, to Steen, is “an important type of truth” (p. 69), including both the aesthetic and the imaginative, although both are “precarious”. It “unites us with the cosmos” (p.70).

Freedberg examines “the relationship between how pictures look and the emotional responses they evoke” (p.73). He looks at geometric compositions and paintings as well as a letter from the painter Poussin to Chantelou outlining how he read a painting by outlining certain modes to express emotions. The properties of the modes, as given by Charpentier, range from C Major, which is “Gay and warlike” to B Major, which is “Severe and plaintive” (p. 84). Freedberg believes “that the seventeenth century view of the modes as adumbrated by Poussin contains a key to understanding” to the relationship between seeing pictures and the emotional reactions to them (pp. 86-87).

Part III is called “Art and the Way We Think”, with chapters by the editor, Mark Turner (The art of compression), Lawrence Zbikowski (The cognitive tango), and Shirley Brice Heath (Dynamics of completion).

Turner is interested in why there is a difference (the “Grand Difference”) between humans and other animals in respect to “art, language, science, religion, refined tool use, advanced music and dance, fashions of dress, and mathematics” (p. 93). He (and Fauconnier, with whom he collaborated on the book The way we think), believes that humans evolved with the capacity for conceptual integration or blending in a stronger form, allowing conceptual compression. To Turner, the operations of “creation and compression” are the key to understanding what goes on in the human mind. Humans compress space, for example, in imagining what a child, now an adult, looked like through the growth continuum. Turner gives many examples of this type of compression, such as Picasso’s paintings, the Buddhist monk puzzle, and species development, where, in evolutionary sketches, birds become dinosaurs, and so on.

Zbikowski explores the cognitive capacities of categorization, cross-domain mapping and the use of conceptual models, specifically in relation to music. His conclusion is that the process is not simple, but embodied in the way the mind and the body connect to interpret and act upon music and dance.

Shirley Brice Heath focuses upon how young artists can potentially correlate their visual art capacity with verbal fluency. In this way “art across cultures functions to transport viewers and listeners outside themselves and beyond the immediacies of space and time” (p. 133). She maintains that “the dynamics of thinking and being that move humans to fill in gaps, particularly in the creation and appreciation of art, depend in large part on communal membership” (p. 137). In her study of young actors she notes that as they spend more and more time engaged in art, their language use changes. They are able to use more lexicon, syntax, metaphors and so on, because they transport themselves into new places, roles and times in their artwork. Such studies help humans discern why they are “the only animals able to ask—and to answer—the questions “what is it about?” and “what’s missing here?” (p. 147).

Part IV is on “Art, Meaning, and Form” and includes chapters by George Lakoff (The neuroscience of form in art), Aage Brandt (Form and meaning in art), and Stephen Murray (Slippages of meaning and form).

Lakoff has been one of the preeminent authors and theoreticians concerning conceptual metaphors, writing Metaphors we live by with Mark Johnson (1980), More than cool reason with Mark Turner (1989), as well as his own Women, fire and dangerous things (1987). In this chapter he proposes a new pattern of conceptual structure that he calls “cogs”. Cogs refer to neural circuits that control certain schemas and perform neural computations, so that abstract concepts can be accessed. They characterize and control the semantics of, for example, grammatical constructions like aspect, which can be applied to any action, process, or state. Lakoff examines a number of paintings to show how they are candidates for cogs because they demonstrate image and force-dynamic schemas. He claims that “The Cog Hypothesis explains how form can be embodied so that it allows inference and is subject to metaphorical interpretation, yet is “abstract”” (p.167).

Brandt distinguishes two styles of perception: “one is pragmatic and action-oriented and the other is aesthetic and affect-oriented” (p. 171). He believes there are four phenomenological aspects of formal perception: symbolization, construction, epiphany and disembodiment (p. 173), and provides “a model of mental architecture” that includes emotions, notions (reflections), situations, objects (perceptions) and qualia (sensations). He also believes that all artistic painting has tension between the presentation of the art and its reference, a blend that our aesthetic sensitivity captures in a “desire-based schema” (p. 181). Brandt ends with “A brief epistemology of neuroaesthetic research” (p. 184) in which he concludes that we live in a mesoscopic spacial world (the world of language) and a macroscopic world from below in which we find a microscopic world, both attainable only through “symbolic devices, observational prostheses, and notional hypotheses” (p. 184).

Stephen Murray examines the slippage in figurative thinking by means of Gothic edifice, its comparison to a forest, and the mental architecture we use to understand the comparative process.

Gothic art and architecture refers to the period between the mid-twelfth and early sixteenth centuries, with its “pointed arches, flying buttresses, rib vaults, skeletal structure” and how the forms represented the prevailing culture. Such forms are present on modern-day European currency. Gothic buildings “display an astonishing wealth of typological linkages through formal associations” (p. 194), so that the church looks like a forest, a human body, a boat, or the cosmos. Its “eloquence lies in its multiple references to entities beyond itself” (p. 195) and Murray provides pictures to help “us to return to them with new methods of investigation, understanding and representation” (p. 205).

Part V is on “Art and Sacred Belief”, with chapters by Robert A. Scott (Making relics work) and Gloria Ferrari (Architectural space as metaphor in the Greek sanctuary).

Scott investigates the power that images have to affect people, illustrated with the relics of medieval saints. He imagines a visiting anthropologist from outer space finding himself in Europe during the Middle Ages. The visitor explores strange buildings and a class of priests who guard certain vessels that contain odd bits and pieces of human remains or objects that were associated with such “saints”. Emotional responses happen when people encounter such objects and medieval beliefs were that a “miracle” could take place by association with the object. Scott uses Turner and Fauconnier’s conceptual blending to analyze the beliefs in invisible forces that take place.

Ferrari “explores the power of metaphor to create images that give visual shape to cultural representations” (p. 225). His view is “that of an archaeologist charged with making sense of the material remains of past cultures” and how images of the past can give us a conceptual identity with a culture not our own. (p. 227). To do so he examines the Greek sanctuary as an artifact that has formal features that map the relationship of man to god. He concludes that the Greek sanctuary is a metaphor and template that deals with the divine.

Part VI, Art and Ambiguity, has chapters by Semir Zeki (The neurology of ambiguity) and Marc De May (Mastering ambiguity).

Zeki talks about the brain as if it were a person, e.g., “The brain is often confronted with situations or view which are open to more than one interpretation,” (p. 243), hardly startling news to any human. His interest is in the neurobiological foundations of ambiguity in art, where the brain is not passive but “an active participant in constructing what we see” (p. 244). Zeki constructs various diagrams to explicate the nodes and compartments that aid perception, such as the interpretation of color. His general conclusion is that “there is a continuum to the operations of the brain, the basis of which is to seek knowledge and instill meaning” (p. 266).

De May explores “the ways in which creative discovery involves mastering ambiguity” (p. 271).  He uses various figures, pictures and paintings to illustrate multiple interpretations, i.e., ambiguities. For example, in one figure (14.14 on p. 189) the scepter of God the Father consists of a transparent cylindrical object, with lines and light in and out of the cylinder to focus on the hand of God the Father and on certain aspects of his cloak. The observer is left to interpret and imagine the mysteries of God the Father. All of the objects include a similar amount of ambiguities that De May discusses.

This is not an easy book to read or understand. The majority of the authors write and analyze with evolutionary assumptions: they believe that all of the creativity in art is a result of neurobiological processes that the brain prompted. If this is the case, perhaps it (and of course evolution) should be worshiped, some might say, instead of God.
February 2012