It has been one year since we last examined how a material entity called ‘the human brain’ mediates an intangible – though recognizable – one called ‘love’. In that time, the temporary lessons and lingering confusions from seeking tactility with this fleeting element of life have accumulated or shrunken in different persons. Some have connected to it from within and have found a pathway to it without. Others have returned – or for the first time entered – that internal state of self-awareness in which they first witness the sly buggers of their heart before them. And still others have grabbed hold of them one-by-one for greater examination – external expression yet undetermined. Regardless of the state of knowledge or confusion, it is safe for us to start from the presumption that love is a complex and dynamic state mediated by internal and external sense-experience. And, at this crossroads is a remarkable organ – the brain – that, by virtue of its position between the internal and external, seeks to understand and then to obtain connection to this elusive state.
Before we plunge into these depths, I must hold up a caveat that what follows is not wholly scientific fact. Rather, as most endeavors in science, it is an incomplete picture compelled along by isolated results. Here, I have taken those results and juxtaposed them with one another to flavor the discussion on love with some biological fact – incomplete as it still may be.
This year, we explore what current work in neuroscience tells us about our biological representations of the internal and the external, how that dichotomy mediates a feeling of being “touched from within,” and what connection love has to the equally sly, though as strongly felt, sensations of aesthetic and creative experience.
We live in a fortunate enough time and a proximate enough space (certainly here in New York it is proximate enough!) that historically separate cultures of scientific and artistic thought are allowed to dance with one another. The tune that drives this waltz – though in some cases it’s a swing; and never a line dance! – is a common understanding that one method of thought is not sufficient to capture the breadth of ways that being “touched from within” can manifest. And as this impromptu dance has developed, the nascent field of neuroaesthetics has provided the latest venue for this full-fledged ball.
The concept of a neural measurement for aesthetic experience has grown naturally from the observation that there is a common pattern of neural activity when people “zone out.” If you are fortunate enough to know any artists then I’m sure “zoning out” is not a surprising description to hear in their temporal vicinity! (More on that later.) This “zoning out” neural pattern is called the default mode network and it has been seen across many people – artists and non-artists – using MRI imaging of brain activity. When zoning out, not paying attention to the external world, or not acting on that external world, there is a mode of networked activity across the brain that everyone goes into by default, i.e., the default mode network of activity. But what does this have to do with aesthetic experience? And for later on, what does this have to do with love?
The emerging insight from neuroaesthetics is that the default mode network (DMN) is activated by externally-driven aesthetic-sensory experience. In other words, the feeling of being “touched from within” by a piece of art (visual sense), a piece of music (aural sense), or any other medium of aesthetic-sensory perception, moves us internally because it activates a part of the DMN. In particular, it activates the parts of our brain that work by deliberate default during external-sensory downtime, when we have only our internal-sense experience before us – when it is only us before ourselves. A great aesthetic experience gets inside us this way.
So we are finding in neuroscience that aesthetic experience comes into contact with our internal concept of self. Necessarily, this implies – and recent research has confirmed – that the DMN is central to an autobiographical self-awareness. This is an awareness to the decisions one makes in the external world to meet the internal desires for how one’s life will unfold. But the DMN is not the only player in this game because the DMN is somewhat locked inside and, therefore, requires a mediator to attend to and then affect the external world. While aesthetic experience may reach through the senses to this internal network, what allows this internal representation of self to connect to, and then to seek fulfillment in, the external reality of sense-experience?
Just as there is a pattern of neural activity for “zoning out” with respect to the external world, there is also a common pattern for “zoning in” to it – i.e., being attentive. And there is yet another pattern for exercising control over that external world. Unsurprisingly, these networks are called the attention network and the control network. Scientists can be woefully boring on their names of such things, but in our defense I would say that the choice of these words relies on the same principles as a poet’s: we treat each word as if it were a 1000-pound load we must carry across a desert (Jack London?). And we are always light travelers, packing only an Occam’s Razor for hygienic purposes!
So, thinking about these competing and sometimes overlapping networks, we see a picture of the brain emerging in which our internal state (observed by the DMN), our external awareness (mediated by the attention network) and our ability to alter external reality (mediated by the control network) work together at varying degrees to either induce or receive this intangible sensation of “being touched from within.” And just as an artist’s piece can reach someone’s inside, another person’s being can do the same thing. This is what we seek when we seek love. We seek that aesthetic experience that another person’s life-art can open inside ourselves; we seek that moment of self-realization and clarity that great writing, great painting or great composing unleashes in wonder-full, though sometimes painfully shocking, impact. We seek in love to bear witness to another person’s art-life – and through it, see our own.
This is perhaps why artists are stereotyped as being ‘self-absorbed’, for they spend much time in the internal depths (in their DMN) while the world around them still exists and requests their attention. To some degree, everyone has been in this state. But the artists’ attention network is deactivated for longer periods of time than others when they are in these depths, for they are ruminating on and grappling with the flood of sense-experience that last hit them when they did attend to the external. Being attentive to so much detail – detail that most filter out unconsciously – is a monumental task for the brain as it vacuums sensory data of the world. But then the equally daunting task of reconciling this external input with the internal state is what follows. And the artist, just like the prospective lover, must integrate the external (attention network) with the internal (DMN) and then finally exert control over them both (control network) to reach a better understanding of their experience. This is the Sysiphian task at the center of our being, biologically mediated by these parts of the brain. And while Sysiphus had “up the hill” and “down the hill” to contend with via his rock, we have “inside the self” and “outside the self” to act on via internal self-awareness or external action; both our and Sisyphus’ tasks are in a dynamic state of flux without an end.
And so our artistic and amorous endeavors are necessarily entwined. We seek the moment of shocking clarity when we have communicated the internal to the external, or when someone has done that to ourselves. We seek the moment of self-realization and clarity that another person can provide because they were more in touch with your internal than you were yourself. We seek that expansion of sense-experience and the moment of clarity that results when the wool is removed from our eyes. And just as easily as it can be a painting or a song, it can be a kiss or a look – a simple gesture that packs into it the comprehensive understanding of the complexity that lies within. But the moment only lasts for so long before the external and internal go their separate ways and love retains its Romantic slyness. So this year, grab those sly buggers of the heart as they fleet around your DMN and show someone on the outside that you can be their artist and they yours. And that together you can make a work of life-art.
More about Jason…
Jason Sherwin, Ph.D. holds dual appointments as a post-doctoral research scientist at the Columbia University in the City of New York and as an Oak Ridge Associated Universities post-doctoral fellow at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. He also serves as the Managing Editor of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering. His research covers perceptual decision-making in real-world environments, using en vivo neuroimaging and machine learning algorithms to improve the analysis of neural data in these complex and dynamic environments. He is also a composer and pianist who explores the nature of perception in aesthetic experience in his artistic as well as scientific endeavors.
Jason Sherwin © All Rights Reserved. 2014.