Home > Uncategorized > A question of science and art.

A question of science and art.

I’ve been informed that I really ought to stop using “So I…” to begin posts. I kind of like doing it, since I feel it drops people right into things, but I’m open to advice.

My thoughts here are coming from a friend talking to me about her anthropology class. Anyways, they were talking about structuralism, and apparently the discussion turned to how our brains register and receive images, “and whether there’s an ‘unmediated moment of pure experience’ before you start dissecting it with interpretations.” As she put it, this conversation took place “without knowing shit, or being required to know shit about brains.”

Now, I’m well aware that people talk shit about things they have no real expertise in all the time. Certainly people in my lab discuss art theory, social theory, politics, anthro, and all sorts of things without any particular education in it. But we rarely do this in class. And I’ve notice this in other contexts, where someone from OCAD was doing a project on neuroscience and how it represents data without being aware of pretty much any of the literature on the topics they were considering. I often get this sense that non-scientists are skeptical of some scientific claims or methods, but then never see if those things are covered in the scientific literature, and start to investigate these claims or methods using art, introspection, or theorizing. For OCAD, they were very doubtful that EEG could measure brain waves, or tell when people were thinking differently, despite this being pretty trivial in any field that uses EEG, such as sleep research (polysomnography) or cognitive science (event-related potentials) or motor studies (using motor-evoked potentials).

My friend’s anecdote bothered me because there is in fact a huge literature on vision and the pathways taken through the brain by visual signals, and how they’re processed. Even just a quick look at this page shows there’s a large amount of data and theory, based on rigorous experimentation using a broad range of techniques, from physiology, single-cell recordings, EEG, functional neuroimaging, clinical research, etc.

Furthermore, experiences are never unmediated. Even if you ignore any kind of linguistic interpretation placed on an experience through conscious awareness of it, all of our senses are transduced into an electrochemical signal. Light rays hitting retinal cells, sound waves hitting our ear drums, chemicals locking into receptors on our tongues, kinetic energy being transferred to our skin (ie heat), are all sent as electrochemical signals from our sensory nerves to our brains as action potentials. It is the source, frequency, and destination of these action potentials that determine our experience of sensations.

This bugs me. It’s one thing to go on about something in ignorance in a casual conversation – it’s another to do so in a classroom. These questions have answers, and there’s no good reason for people not to look at them. Otherwise you’ll assume your guess is as good as anyone elses’. And it isn’t.


As an aside, there was another thing that bugged me. There was someone in the same class arguing “[the fact that] that we always operate within language was a privileged western worldview.” The class eventually determined that “by language, [they] had established that we meant ‘systems of meaning'”. Which, by the way, is how all communication occurs. Through systems of representation and symbolism. Pretty much one of those few universal human experiences. As I told my friend, I often tend to assume people who talk like that are fetishizing east/west dichotomies, which often strike me as modern orientalism under the guise of anti-privilege positions. Especially given the person was essentially saying ‘eastern culture finds its greatest meaning in silence’, which is complete BS, given the huge amount of writing the Chinese and Indians (who are usually who’s meant by “eastern”), among others, have done on every topic. Even a division of “East” and “West” is a problem, given the large numbers of disparate groups that are being crushed together under those arbitrary labels.


I think people should look at work that’s been done previously. Scientists need to consult economists, musicians, anthropologists, sexologists, etc, if they want to make claims involving those subjects. That’s usually acknowledged, even if it often doesn’t happen in practice. People in the arts and humanities, on the other hand, rarely seem to see any need to consult with scientists on topics touching on science, even if they’re actively critiquing scientific facts or methods. This may have something to do with the different ways the disciplines have of building or creating knowledge.

While I don’t think experts are always right, or irrefutable, there is a reason they’re experts.

  1. 09/10/2011 at 7:20 pm

    I wouldn’t recommend anyone contacting musicians for opinions on the matter…Musicians have made making pseudo-scientific claims about how music operates an art form in itself.

  2. 09/10/2011 at 7:26 pm

    Hahaha, fair enough. But there must be technical questions you could ask – and certainly CIRMMT people have a pretty empirically-based approach to music.

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