Monday, March 10, 2014

Neuroscientist Stephen Whitmarsh on I am A Curator and Neuroscience

Reflections on IACC: expectations and neuroscience
Per and I have been engaged in a dialogue about the differences and parallels between art and science for many years, and in so doing have always been conscious of our own limited perspectives. I am not an artist, and Per is not a scientist and this often results in wonderful moments of mutual confusion. Increasingly, these conversations have deepened my appreciation of his artistic vision, and it is a great pleasure to take the opportunity now to reflect on I Am A Curator (IAAC).
During our conversations about this project it became clear to the both of us that expectations provide a relevant point of departure for our reflections on both art and science. Expectations are ephemeral thoughts: they are always present; informing, shaping and determining our minds while at the same time remaining mostly unconscious. During the process of creating IAAC, however, expectations (of himself, the artists, the audience and the art-world) showed themselves clearly to Per, and had to be confronted head-on. I have come to understand that the outcome of these confrontations has shaped Per’s artistic practice greatly over the next ten years. In fact, the more I have been thinking about IAAC, the more I seem to understand him and his artistic vision.

The predicting Brain

Expectations (or rather: predictions) are currently a very important and influential topic in cognitive neuroscience. This has certainly not always been the case and it is only recently that the importance of expectations has been appreciated in neuroscience. To understand what I mean, we have to go back several decades to when the brain was understood according to the then contemporary cultural metaphor of the computer (after the prevailing metaphor of telephone switch-board). The primacy of the computer metaphor started in the fifties and gradually gained more and more influence until it peaked in the 70’s and 80’s.This co-occurred   with the interest in artificial intelligence in the 90’s. From this cognitivist view, every complex function (such as perception, memory and action) was understood as a succession of many simpler processing steps, with each step informing the next.

Research in e.g. visual perception resulted in the understanding of the many processing steps that occur from the moment light meets the retina of the eye until we become conscious of what we see. Starting at the highest spatial resolution of the primary visual cortex, small groups of brain cells decode individual aspects of the visual field independently from each other in what are called hyper-columns (colour, shape etc.). The results of these computations are then passed on to toward the front of the brain (the visual areas are all in the back of the brain) and then put together until, for instance, facial features of a person can be recognized. A similar hierarchy is found for our actions but going in the opposite direction, from the abstract to the concrete: The idea to wave your hand at your friend processes towards progressively more detailed motor plans until all the separate muscles in your arms and hands are activated to create a fluid and concerted motion.

These perception and action pathways in the brain are undisputed. However, it now turns out that there is more to it. The brain does not only process visual information first, and then secondly act on the world. Information flows the other way as well. We now know that there are about ten times as many neuronal connections going back towards the visual cortex. Science and philosophy are now asking the question what kind of information is passed along that way, back into the world.  We have learned that all these separate steps were not so separate at all. In fact, as a general rule the next step informs the previous much more that the other way around.

This means that in every processing step of the brain the whole informs the parts. As soon as there is even the slightest expectation that you will find the face of your friend in a crowd, your visual system is duly informed and attunes its sensitivity to the relevant information (blond hair, funny moustache)  - so you can spot him easier.

In other words, the understanding of the brain in terms of a simple bottom-up processing of information has been turned around. We now know that action and expectations are just as much controlling perception. In a way your eyes do not send information all the way to the front of the brain so that the front of your brain can figure out what you are seeing. Rather, it’s the opposite: your brain is telling your eyes what to see. So, the task becomes to discover to which degree these predictions are met by the outside world.

This is a total reversal of what we believed only two decades ago. Instead of the brain-as-a-computer metaphor, the emerging metaphor now is that of a self-organizing biological system. What can be considered to be one of the most influential theories of the brain today (the free energy principle), the brain’s primarily function is to minimize the difference between its predictions and its perceptions. In other words, to minimize surprise.

The predicting brain in action
Interestingly, this way of looking at the brain doesn’t only concern our conscious and unconscious mind, but aims to explain our behaviour as well. Ask yourself, how can your brain reduce the difference between its predictions and its perceptions? It can only do this in two ways: either by changing the prediction, or by changing the outside world. This is, according to the theory, the biological law that moves us and organizes all our actions. At first glance this idea can seem extremely limited. However, it is in fact also extremely elegant once you realize that what that the brain perceives can be any brain/body state. It can be both a perceptual state (the face of your friend in a crowd) as well as the position of our feet walking up an escalator (expecting it to be moving). It can be the perception of bodily feelings (e.g. pain or pleasure) as well as the presence of certain abstract ideas (e.g. that of your brain as a computer). On all these dimensions of biological and psychological life we have a current state and an expected state. Some of these expectations are deeply unconscious and evolutionary hardwired, such as the expectation of a healthy, happy state of living. In other words, the mind/body assumes there is no pain or sadness until this prediction is broken by, for instance, a cut in your skin or social rejection. Any failure to meet these expectations mobilizes the organism to either change its expectations, or to organize itself into action to close the gap.

Expectations in Science

Like Per did in IAAC, an ideal science confronts its own expectations head on. Science, or the scientific method, can be seen as a perpetual state of questioning, with the purpose of undermining false expectations. It does so in what is called the empirical cycle: Starting with initial observations a preliminary theory or model of the world is formulated. This theory generates specific predictions, or hypotheses, that are then tested against new systematic observations. Unlike the free-roaming brain, when these observations do not confirm the theory it is the theory that needs to change, not the world. During this empirical cycle the hypotheses continuously change. They are only temporary expectations that exist for as long as they are useful.

As we will see more clearly in a moment, in the current globalized capitalist world temporary hypotheses can also become too much of a focus in scientific practice and publishing. They can erroneously be seen as representing something like business proposals: If successful, they result in publications that increase the value of the scientist and his/her research. If on the other hand they are falsified, they end up in the file-drawer and represent failed investments. The scientific field is therefore threatened by becoming a practice of looking for predictions (investments) that no one else has yet made, while at the same time minimizing the risk that they turn out to be false. The interplay between knowledge (expectations) and discovery is a complicated one. However, I would like to argue for the ideal of science wherein a scientist tries to understand the world better, not only for the sake of knowledge, but also for the purpose of being maximally surprised. In IAAC this was also the challenge that Per learned to appreciate. He and the other artists teach themselves how to work with the unexpected, even if much of the resulting value in insights and inspiration came only in hindsight (as they always do in science as well).

A parable of derailed predictions
I want to finish my reflections with a parable that shows us the dangerous lure that expectations have on the individual, also on the scientist. I think it teaches us that there is a real and continuous struggle against the (social) expectations that we create for ourselves and for others. It also has something to say about our naïve understanding of beauty.

In September 2011 Professor Diederik Stapel from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, was suspended from his duties after allegations of fraud. After investigations, and, finally, to his own admission, it became clear that he had manipulated his experimental data throughout his whole career. He had done so in an increasingly bold manner to the point that during the last decade he did not even perform experiments any more, but simply fabricated data that confirmed his hypothesis. When this came to light, it not only destroyed his career, but also shattered the careers of the PhD students who based their work on his false data (“know that you have gold in your hands” he would tell them when he handed over the data). It also resulted in series of grave attacks on the scientific credibility of psychological research, especially on his the field of social psychology.

In 2013, at the same time the committee responsible for investigating the published their report, Stapel published a 315 page memoir titled ‘Ontspoord’ (in English: ‘Derailed’). In this timely published book, he wrote about his life’s decline. He argued how it originated from his disillusionment in regards to the field of science, which he came to see as a practice of finding clever ways of producing exciting but meaningless results. He explained his own motivation with a cynical take on the weaknesses of human psychology, and his own desire to be praised by his peers. It’s really a sad tale and morally unconvincing. However, he does make some candid observations.

Let me quote from his memoirs (freely translated from Dutch.) “Science is a battle. Science is a constant battle against one’s expectations. If you can’t take it, science is not for you. You can be right and harvest success. You can discover something that is true and interesting. But there comes a moment when you miss your target. There comes a day where with all your philosophic reasoning, analysis and logic you are just wrong. If you are a scientist you should not only be able to take in success, but also manage failure. You have to be prepared to be surprised. You have to be prepared to be defeated by yourself. […] I was sitting alone in my stylish room at the University of Groningen. I had closed the door extra carefully and cleaned up my desk extra well. Everything had to be neat and pristine. No trash. I opened the file with the data that I had recorded and changed an unexpected 2 into a 4, and a bit further in the matrix a 3 into a 5. It didn’t feel good. I looked around me anxiously. The numbers danced in front of my eyes. If the results are only just not what you had so fiercely hoped for, if you know that your hope is based on a thorough analysis of the literature, if this is your third experiment on the topic and the other two did succeed, if you know that somewhere else in the world other researchers are doing similar experiments in which they are successful, then why can’t you just adapt the results a bit?

No. I clicked undo typing. Again. I felt lonely. This is not what I wanted. I had worked so hard. I did everything I could and it didn’t end up like I had expected. It was only slightly different from what everyone thought it should be. I looked at the door of my room. It was closed. I looked out of the window. It was dark outside. Redo Typing. Again. For a moment I thought that someone was standing behind me. I turned around anxiously. No one, of course. I looked at the data matrix again and with some mouse clicks performed the statistical analysis. When I saw the new results, the world became logical again. I saw what I had had in mind. I was happy, but also couldn’t look at it. I felt relieved, but also sad. This was beautiful, but also very wrong.”

Later, in an interview the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant he stated  “[in the fabricated research results I] saw something beautiful. I was searching for aesthetics, for beauty, not for truth.”


To conclude, neuroscience now teaches us that expectations have been our evolutionary imperative since the dawn of time: when we were still low on the evolutionary ladder we needed to be one step ahead of our predators. After we became predators, we survived by anticipating the behaviour of our prey. Eons before we even were able to formulate conscious expectations, our brain had been organizing and optimizing our mind to establish us optimally in a world that is predictable in many, but certainly not all events.

Thanks to our ability to also change our expectations, we have finally arrived safe and secure at the David Roberts Art Foundation commemorating IAAC. We can reflect on expectations that are, at least from the point of view of our nearest biological ancestors, absolutely abstract. In some real sense we do not need expectations here. There are no tigers in the room, nor do we have to expect one around the corner. However this is art, this is culture, and what is culture if not other people’s expectations?

Still, we should not drop our guard. Both science and art need to keep confronting its expectations or else become irrelevant at best, or fall prey to social conventions and market mechanisms at worst. In my mind, IAAC is an example of how we can push forward.

(See further Per Huttner's text below).

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