Amy Ione, Art and the Brain: Plasticity, Embodiment, and the Unclosed Circle
Amy Ione, Director of the Diatrope Institute, Berkeley, California, USA
Listening to a train in 1854 Thoreau wrote: “I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke with his nostrils. (What kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I do not know.)” (Thoreau 2004: 113). As rail power was married to industry and to society more broadly, artifacts started to build the new mythology. By 1874 Charles Dickens described Coketown (in Hard Times) as:
"[A] town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye . . ." (Dickens 1854: 22).
Yet, in 1877 Claude Monet (1840–1926) thought the smoke and the steam presented an artistic challenge. He wanted to reveal that even a black machine and a mass of black panes could be depicted with blue paint, that the dirty gray of the ground could be seen as green, and that the smoke itself could become light. He explained his project to his colleague Renoir, telling his friend that he would have the rail people increase train emissions to aid him in achieving the desired effect: “I’ll show [the Gare Saint-Lazare] just as the trains are starting, with the smoke from the engines so thick you can hardly see a thing. It’s a fascinating sight, a regular dream world.” Monet’s tantalizing results led the French writer Émile Zola (1840–1902) to praise the resulting state-of-the-art plein-air paintings, and in a way that no doubt gives a new meaning how we think of the term “plein-air”: “You can hear the trains rumbling in, see the smoke billow up under the huge roofs . . . That is where painting is today . . . Our artists have to find the poetry in train stations, the way their fathers found the poetry in forests and rivers” (in Wilson-Bareau 1998: 105-106).
Brain research has similarly yielded prescient and incongruent examples. After Luigi Galvani's pioneering work in the late 18th century led to an understanding of the electrical basis of nerve impulses some scientists tried to animate corpses, which led to a scientific debate that is critiqued in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. By the 19th century a range of ideas about localized function, human psychology, human physiology, and environmental impacts are similarly evident in both art and the neurosciences. William James introduced the word plasticity in 1890 to speak about hypothetical changes in nervous activity that underlies the formation of habits, a more limited concept than how use the term today. Over the course of the 20th century, plasticity and hardwiring were discussed, with the computer revolution beginning to add texture to the ideas by the end of the century. The current understanding is that brain development itself begins before birth and continues over the course of our lives. Starting out as a tiny strip of cells, complex biological processes form the brain. Then, as we grow over time, connections within the brain are constantly being removed or recreated, largely dependent upon how they are used.