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The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious BrainReview - The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain
by Robert L. Solso
MIT Press, 2003
Review by Kamuran Godelek, Ph.D.
Jul 8th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 28)

"When combined, the conscious mind and its symbolic technologies generate a powerful chemistry. The brain-symbol interface is the birthplace of art, science, mathematics, and most of the great institutional structures humans have built" (Merlin Donald). This quote at the beginning of the second chapter titled "Art and the Rise of Consciousness" captures the main idea in Robert Solso's very interesting book "The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain". In this book, Solso seeks out an answer to the question as to what type of conscious brain guided the hand that created art that first appeared on earth many years ago. By examining the evolution of the human brain and cognition, he develops a new theory that he calls conscious AWAREness describing the evolution of consciousness and its relationship to the emergence of art.

Solso introduces an original idea that a comprehensive theory of consciousness should incorporate the evolution of the brain, anthropological findings of early behavior, cognitive information about the sensory-perceptual processes, and the emergence of art as manifest in early carvings, amulets and drawings, and that these four factors -- brain, anthropology, cognition and art -- are all tied together by human consciousness, or as described in chapter 1, conscious AWAREness. He points out that: "as the brain increases in size and capacity during the upper Pleistocene, additional components of consciousness were added or developed. People became more AWARE in the sense that they were more cognizant, not only of a world that existed in contemporaneous actuality, but of a world that could be imaged...equipped with expanded conscious AWAREness, people first created art and then technology" (s. xiv).

While the theme of this book revolves around the evolution of the brain, the appearance of consciousness and the emergence of art, there are several intriguing related themes. These include the special neurological and artistic consideration of the human face; how the curious effects of visual illusions may be related to survival needs and how artists have capitalized on the seemingly anomalous visual-cognitive effect of visual illusions; how perspective has been used by artists; and the nature of "hypothesis-driven" perception and art. Solso uses a wide variety of examples of art such as East, African, Asian and Indian as well as art from ancient Egypt, the Renaissance and modern periods to illustrate the ideas in the book.

Throughout the book, Solso searches for visual truth with one fundamental question: how are things in the physical world (such as Mona Lisa) represented in the mind of a person, especially the artist. He is convinced and tries to convince the reader that the neurological processes in all humans are approximately the same; that the historical development of art and the emergence of conscious AWAREness were concurrent and interactive (with consciousness an antecedent to art); that internally represented impressions are not the same as events in the "real world"; that perception and cognition evolved for purposes of survival and procreation; that all art, as well as all perception, is distorted by the eye and the brain; and that we see the world of art and all other percepts through individual and collective prisms which are consensually agreed to represent "truth".

In chapter 1, he proposes that the human sensory-cognitive system emerged from our blind planet as a scheme for survival. Adaptive changes in the eye and the brain brought along a sense of what was important for immediate survival and a sense of adventure, also important for long-term survival. Beings might successfully adjust to a threatening and chancing world if they could sense and understand menacing signals and avoid them, as well as being attracted to beneficial ones. In the following two chapters he continues to set out the intricate sequence of neuro-cognitive developments, which lead to conscious AWAREness in modern person. He argues that "cognizant creatures reacted to the winds of change by using their brains and imagination to change the environment. Through the gift of imagery, humans could not only see things as they appeared but also, much more importantly, as they might be. Vision, intellect, adaptation, memory for past actions, mixed with the instinct to survive, were the ingredients that produced art, clothes, language, tools, chariots, and computers, as well as every other cobbled together by a mind that guided the hand of man" (p. 72).

In the fourth chapter titled "Art and the Brain," where he introduces the two main visual processing streams to locate where an object is and to tell us what an object is, many of the examples of art pieces he uses show human face, which he does for a purpose that faces have dominated art, especially Western art. Hence, in the following chapter he sets out to find out what is so special about faces. He argues that it is in the what stream that we find specific brain structures dedicated to the processing of upright, normal faces -- faces that have a pivotal role in evolution, in everyday life, and in art. Solso shows us with many extraordinary examples that faces are special: each period of art, from prehistoric carved-stone "Venus" amulets to ancient and Ptolemaic Egypt, the early and late Renaissance, classicism, impressionism, cubism, through to postmodernism, has featured the portraits as a central theme of artistic presentation. He also points out that there is domain-specific and localized part of the human cerebral cortex that is dedicated to facial processing. Just as "facial cells" evolved for facial processing, it is posited that specialized types of "aesthetic cells" are implicated in our evaluation of sensory events. He suggests that the conscious AWAREness of art and aesthetics is a direct outgrowth of these cortical structures, which originally developed to have sex, eat proper foods, and survive the vicissitudes of nature.

This is a very interesting book that revolves around a simple, yet intriguing question as to what type of brain initially created art. Solso has an eloquent answer to this question such that art production demonstrates acts that could have been produced only by a brain capable of conscious thought and that art and science are two sides of the same coin. The common denominator between art and science is the degree to which expressions in each domain are compatible with the human mind. As scientists discover laws of the universe that are congruent with mind, artists discover visual images of the world that are harmonious with mind. Both explore the truth and beauty of the mind; at an abstract, cognitive level, they are identical. In his own words: "Science and art are products of the mind; they are of the mind and yet they also are the mind. On the surface, we appreciate art, literature, music, ideas and science; at the core, we see our own mind unveiled in these wonderful things that touch us profoundly (p. 259).

This book gives a wonderful account of a remarkable co-evolution of the brain, consciousness, cultural developments, and art. While its writing style is very informative as many ideas are drawn from highly complicated sources of neurology, cognitive science, anthropology, psychology and history, it is quite interesting and intelligible even to a layperson. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants to have a deeper understanding of the relation between art and the mind, and also to anyone who wants to know why we appreciate art the way we do; and to find a way to view and understand art. I am sure, after reading this book you will see farther and more clearly about art and science.


© 2004 Kamuran Godelek


Kamuran Godelek, Ph.D., Mersin University, Department of Philosophy, Mersin, TURKEY


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