This is a week and a half old, but worth looking up if you haven’t seen it: An article on Slate examines what prehistoric art can tell us about the human brain. According to the article, cave paintings and other very early art may represent a kind of visual shorthand and abstraction in which salient features are exaggerated. The dots, squiggles, and other more obviously abstract features may be a representation of what early humans saw in hallucinations or trance visions deep in the caves where they painted, which are essentially visual noise in the brain that becomes amplified when visual input from the outside world is absent. The more haunting question of what exactly these paintings and other art objects meant to their creators and exactly why they created them is harder to answer.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, documentary film by Werner Herzog, 2010
This documentary is almost certainly as close as you will ever get to exploring the Chauvet Cave in southern France, home to the earliest known cave art, and Werner Herzog provides an excellent vicarious visit. The cave was discovered in 1994 and speedily locked up to protect its prehistoric treasure, a multitude of paintings of wild animals roughly twice as old as any previously known. The cave was evidently visited by humans in two different periods: the Aurignacian, roughly 30,000 to 32,000 years ago, and the Gravettian, roughly 25,000 to 27,000 years ago. Most of the art is from the earlier period; an enigmatic footprint left by a young boy, paired with the tracks of a wolf, are among the fewer remnants of the later period. About 20,000 years ago, a rock slide covered the entrance to the cave, which lay undisturbed until 1994. I groped for an analogy; it is as if some future beings in the year 29,000 by our current calendar found an iPad amongst the debris at the lowest levels of the city of Troy, perhaps.
Herzog does these beautiful images justice; he filmed them in 3D under fairly restricted conditions (access to the cave is very limited). The result takes full advantage of the light of moving flashlights, the looming shadows of the film crew and scientists, and the billows and depressions in the stone walls, which the creators themselves exploited to present their visions of their animal cohort. The film also shows some footage of the world outside the cave, including the Ardèche River and a natural stone bridge called the Pont d’Arc. Although one of the messages of the film, underscored by its title, is that the past is in many ways lost to us, this view of the paintings was evocative of the conditions under which they were created. For all our distance in time from these anonymous artists, it was easy to think that you could sense something of their world.
Herzog spends lots of times on the paintings themselves, noting their proto-cinematic aspects (a bison drawn with eight legs, for example, in an attempt to portray movement). There are some satisfyingly long slow pans over the images in all their mysterious beauty: a series of four overlapping horses, a rhinoceros with an exaggerated horn, a pair of rhinos apparently locked in combat, and many more. (The soundtrack gets a little intrusive in spots; silence would have been a fine alternative to what struck me as generic shapeless mystical music.) He also interviews some of the people who study the caves, a passionate and sometimes eccentric bunch. Jean-Michel Geneste, the Chauvet Cave Research Project’s director, describes the rich fauna of the time:
“You have to imagine lions, bears, leopards, wolves, foxes, in very large numbers, and among all these carnivores and predators—humans!”
Archaeologist Wulf Hein, talking about what we can learn of other arts at the time from other sites, appears wearing a rough fur garment of some sort and holding a replica of a tiny bone flute. He gestures at the German valley behind him and speaks as if he were an eyewitness setting the scene for a story:
“In the valley down there, reindeer and mammoth were passing, and it was very cold.”
Another researcher discusses the sounds we can imagine from the paintings, for example, the open mouths of horses suggesting their whinnies. These interviews support another message of the film, that although we can never reconstruct the past fully, we can represent it (and in fact we seem compelled to do so).
One of the most poignant signs of these early humans, to me anyway, was a series of red handprints they left behind. I am always moved by the sight of prehistoric handprints; they are one of the most vivid reminders of the humanity of these long-lost people (“I was here!” they seem to be saying). In this case, one of the people who left handprints had a crooked little finger, so his path through the cave can be traced by the recognizable handprints he left behind. The shadow of the unknown in which so many people once lived makes it particularly astonishing when we can identify a specific individual among those many, many anonymous generations.
In addition to its human traces, the caves contain things left behind by other animals: bones, some of them gnawed, perhaps by cave bears; bones of the bears themselves, including a skull that has since been encased in glittering calcite; scratches the bears made on the walls, some under the paintings and some over them. Most of the stalactites and rippling curtains of stone evidently formed after the rock slide that sealed the cave, so the painters would not have seen them. They emphasize the vast amount of time that has passed since its earlier users left it.
All in all, I highly recommend this film, particularly if you are fascinated by what we can understand of the lives of prehistoric humans or by the way scientists investigate these early ancestors. It is a dazzling visit to a mostly vanished world.
On the Thinking Meat Project Facebook page, I recently posted this quote from The Country of Language by Scott Russell Sanders: “And I knew that my impulse to write is bound up with my desire to salvage worthy moments from the river of time. Maybe all art is a hedge against loss.” Ever since I posted this quote, I’ve been thinking about writing and memory.
It’s always been a challenge to me to know what to put in and what to leave out when I write. When I was in probably fourth or fifth grade, I was given an assignment to write about my spring vacation from school, which I think consisted of a long weekend around Easter. We were supposed to hand this in the morning after the vacation ended. I’m sure the teacher wanted just a page or two summing up the key events—an Easter egg hunt, a family dinner—but I started writing on the first evening of the break, all about coming home from school that day and what Mom said to me and what we had for dinner and what my brothers and sister and I did when we played in the yard that evening. I did the same thing the next day, in what must have been excruciatingly tedious detail.
The experience now reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s fictional map with a scale of one mile to the mile. It was the first time I thought about the writer’s problem of when to summarize and when to zoom into the details. (I seem to remember that about ten pages into the thing, it started to drive my mother nuts, and I was fairly frustrated too.) So “worthy moments” is a key part of the Sanders quote. You can’t possibly capture all the moments, and you wouldn’t really want to. It’s taken me longer to realize (or admit) that you can’t even capture all the worthy moments.
The other thing that occurs to me is that I also try to save worthy moments in the form of physical objects. I have a folder full of expired museum passes and train ticket stubs and similar ephemera from a trip to Paris this summer, not to mention some Euro coins in a small bowl. Handling these things again reminds me that those magical two weeks were real, and helps me focus my energies on getting back there someday. This is all well and good; that trip was just under six months ago. However, I have taken enough trips and lived through enough noteworthy events that I don’t have room for every bit of memorabilia from every one of them. My house is small, and life is short. Storing and looking at things from past experiences crowds out the space and time needed for new ones.
This leads back to writing, because sometimes writing about a particular place or time or event can be enough to preserve it in my mind, and I can jettison the physical reminders. This past spring I finally threw away an old set of bookshelves, the first I ever bought. They were made of particleboard and showing their years, but I clung to them because for someone who has as many books as I do, bookshelves are more than just another piece of furniture. I bought this set when I was 15, using money I had won in a creative writing contest. I painted them myself. They weren’t just bookshelves; they expressed the optimism and pride of my 15-year-old self. But they were in fact a slowly crumbling object that was falling apart unevenly and no longer stood up straight. It helped to write down my memories of them and let the bookshelves themselves go. A small file on the hard drive is much easier to find room for than the shelves themselves, but it still allows me to bolster my identity by hanging onto the feelings of that younger self.
In the much longer run, however, even the small file will have to go. One of the ideas about which I feel most passionately is the value of the written word to the human species. Forty-six years after I got my first library card, it is still sometimes a wonder to me that we can enter the minds of people long gone, let them transmit their thoughts to us, perhaps discuss those thoughts with others, and maybe even send a few down the pipeline ourselves to future minds. It is one of the most magical things that apes do. However, the amount of human wisdom and experience that has been preserved, as vast as it is, is only a fraction of the knowledge and thought and sheer human personality and wit that have been produced through the ages. And, if I am honest with myself, I realize that the amount of it that I will be able to comprehend, even if I live into my 80s or 90s, is the merest crumb. What I leave behind will probably be no more than the wake of the boats I saw passing on the Seine this summer, an evanescent ripple that blends quickly into the countless other agitations that move across the water.
This thought used to distress me, but I’ve cleaned out enough closets and hauled enough stuff to the curb or to Goodwill that I am content to realize that old things have to go, and someday I will be an old thing whose time has come. Even this realization, however, I would mark in words. The following poem is by Carl Sandburg; it’s from a collection called Smoke and Steel. Because the entire book is available for free from Google Books, I don’t think I’m taking anything away from Sandburg’s estate by posting this poem here.
Stars, Songs, Faces
Gather the stars if you wish it so.
Gather the songs and keep them.
Gather the faces of women.
Gather for keeping years and years.
And then . . .
Loosen your hands, let go and say goodby.
Let the stars and songs go.
Let the faces and years go.
Loosen your hands and say goodbye.
Seashells were painted and used as adornment by early humans, and this is commonly taken to indicate an ability to think symbolically. There has been very little evidence that Neanderthals shared this ability. In fact, the belief that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to humans has been given as a reason for why they died out.
However, a recent find challenges the idea that Neanderthals were incapable of symbolic thought. Scallop and cockle shells showing traces of applied pigment were found in two caves in southeastern Spain. The shells are estimated to be about 50,000 years old; fossil evidence of modern humans in the area goes back only 40,000 years.
Several past discoveries have suggested that Neanderthals might have created what could be considered jewelry or art. The evidence was scanty, and these earlier discoveries were generally not interpreted as true instances of symbolic thinking. This new evidence, however, combined with the earlier finds, seems to indicate that we’ve been underestimating the mental capacities of this fascinating species. In fact, this article from Scientific American even suggests that rather than developing jewelry independently, Neanderthals might have taught humans how to make art, or vice versa.
The findings will appear in the January 11 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and are available online now:
Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals
João Zilhão, Diego E. Angelucci, Ernestina Badal-García, Francesco d’Errico, Floréal Daniel, Laure Dayet, Katerina Douka, Thomas F. G. Higham, María José Martínez-Sánchez, Ricardo Montes-Bernárdez, Sonia Murcia-Mascarós, Carmen Pérez-Sirvent, Clodoaldo Roldán-García, Marian Vanhaeren, Valentín Villaverde, Rachel Wood, and Josefina Zapata.
Sometimes humans bemoan the fact that we really can’t grasp what a fourth spatial dimension would be like: we can’t truly picture a hypercube the way we can a cube. True enough, but on the other hand, we take for granted the ability to perceive three-dimensional objects, which actually requires some extremely complex processing. This article from Physorg.com describes a recent paper in Nature Neuroscience (linked to in the article) about how individual neurons in rhesus macaques respond to particular aspects of shape and structure. These specific individual responses may be combined, through sophisticated “neural codes,” to give us our ability to see objects in three dimensions.
In a related study, neuroscience researchers will team up with staff at a museum in Baltimore to examine the aesthetic response to different three-dimensional shapes in a search for particular themes or motifs that generate a stronger response. If such themes are found, scientists could try to identify their neural representation. Sculptors have been experimenting informally with the human response to various shapes, and I’m really intrigued by the prospect of what a more scientific approach might tell us about human aesthetic preferences, their neural underpinnings, and perhaps even how they might have evolved.
A three-year project of the Dana Foundation examined several aspects of the relationship between arts education and cognitive development. The news is preliminary but encouraging: Training in music or a performing art is linked to better performance or enhanced skills in other areas, like memory, reading, and geometrical representation. The study also looked at links between genes and an interest in the arts. This press release doesn’t go into the specifics but mentions the identification of genes that may influence how interested a person is in the arts, and a finding about adult interest in the arts being linked to the personality trait of openness, which appears to be correlated to genes that influence dopamine activity.
This work (and any followup studies) should provide some useful evidence for the value of arts education, an item of the budget that’s been under attack in many school systems in recent years. If I had to define my own support for arts education I’d probably say that the arts are part of what makes us human and encapsulate a great deal of information about the nature and history of humankind, and are the birthright of every child. But having good arguments for the beneficial effect of arts education on the growing brain is also an excellent thing.
Following up on yesterday’s post about beauty and the brain, here’s an article from the New York Times about why humans create art. Natalie Angier writes about a symposium on art and evolution that took place recently. Among the theories that attempt to explain why we have art and how we began creating it, she mentions one I hadn’t heard before: Perhaps the roots of art lie in the interactions of mothers and babies. Independent scholar Ellen Dissanayake argues that the special use of language (motherese) and the reciprocal gestures and other interactions between mother and child may represent the building blocks from which art was created. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, and obviously I need to read some of Dissanakaye’s work. (It’s always good to see such a successful independent scholar.)
What makes a work of art beautiful? When people judge the beauty of a piece of sculpture, for example, are they simply expressing a personal opinion conditioned by their own experiences and personality, or are they responding to something intrinsic to the artwork that evokes the same response in all viewers? A recent brain imaging study indicates that the answer is: A little of both.
Italian researchers used fMRI to examine the brains of volunteers who were viewing images of classical and Renaissance art. Some images were true to the originals, while others had been tweaked a bit so that they no longer conformed to the golden ratio, a proportion long believed to be aesthetically appealing. The study revealed that when participants simply viewed the images, the original images sparked more brain activity in specific areas, including the insula (a brain structure that mediates emotional responses), than the manipulated images. However, when the participants rated the sculptures as beautiful or ugly, the right amygdala (an important emotional center in the brain) was active when they were viewing the beautiful ones.
This indicates that there are two distinct but not mutually exclusive processes at work in determining our response to art, giving rise to an objective evaluation based on the properties of the art itself, and a subjective evaluation based on personal experience. This story from Science Daily has more information, and if you really want to get into the details, here’s the original paper in PLoS One, one of the Public Library of Science open access journals.
A related story is this one from the Telegraph about a professor who’s studying neuroaesthetics, the ways that art interacts with our brain and trips our neural triggers. (He found, by the way, that when a viewer looked at paintings he or she registered as beautiful, there was more activity in the orbito-frontal cortex.)