Ben Ehrlich and Noah Hutton Reflect on the Relationship Between Art and Science




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Mar 13, 2015
by Stuart Milne
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Ben Ehrlich and Noah Hutton Reflect on the Relationship Between Art and Science

The minds behind online magazine The Beautiful Brain on the father of neuroscience and the "Apollo 13 theory" of neuroaesthetics Ben Ehrlich and Noah Hutton speaking at Session 547 | The Neuroscience of Art

Writer Ben Ehrlich and filmmaker Noah Hutton have known each other since their middle school days in New York, and now work together running the online magazine The Beautiful Brain.

While participating in Session 547 | The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity and Innovation?, the duo spoke to Salzburg Global about the art/science relationship and the "Apollo 13 theory" of neuroaesthetics.

Hutton said: “We started The Beautiful Brain because we both got really into neuroscience around the time we were in college. I was an Art History major, and I didn’t really figure out a way to cross over between art and science while I was in school.

“So I started the site with Ben after college so we could have an opportunity to interview people in the field, to explore interdisciplinary crossovers and figure out some ways to cover events and review books.

“It’s been a great way to stay engaged with the field, and since we love magazines it’s nice to do something online in a format we both love.”

Ehrlich says he did not become seriously interested in neuroscience until after graduating from college, but is grateful for how his discovery of the discipline has transformed his work.

“It was a nice way to introduce new creative material into my thinking,” he said. “I became fascinated with a certain figure in neuroscience, and it was a good way to practise writing and have opportunities to interact with people in these little niche communities in New York that were interested in art and science.”

The figure in question is Spanish Nobel laureate Santiago Ramon y Cajal, often hailed as the founder of neuroscience.

“He was a great scientific genius, and I was surprised that I had never heard of him,” Ehrlich said. “As someone with intellectual interests I knew about Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein to a certain extent. Cajal was someone who flew under my radar until I encountered his life and work, which were very inspiring.

“The drawings that he made of neurons moved me, and the more I learned about his story, the more I wanted to give him the proper treatment in the United States by translating his work and writing about his life.

“Cajal predates the distinction between art and science – for me he has always embodied the combination of the two. He identified himself as an artist from a young age, but directed his energies towards medicine, and found the human body and the natural world a perfect subject.

“Very late in his career he said only true artists were attracted to science, which summarizes his attitude towards that endeavor.”

Hutton has his own views on this relationship between art and the brain, envisioning art as a space probe and the brain as the Moon.

“The key theory that I presented at this session was what I’m calling the Apollo 13 theory of neuroaesthetics,” he said. “Those astronauts used a slingshot effect to go around the Moon and come back to Earth, they didn’t actually land on the Moon.

“I think the problem in neuroaesthetics is we want to land on the brain for easy answers to the art conversation, but we can’t – there’s nowhere to land, at least not with the current tools. So we need to use the brain’s gravity to develop velocity to come back at the art conversation, thereby gaining explanatory momentum.”

Hutton also believes it is useful to view culture in the same manner as the architectural space of the brain, comprising interconnecting layers.

“I like to think of this idea of human history as moving through layers of culture, each one building on what came before but adding something that’s qualitatively new,” he said.

“What I like to compare it to is the Judaic book of the Talmud, because the Talmud is a multilayered text of commentary that’s been developed over thousands of years. It’s evolved in a very creative and collaborative way. Each page has six layers of commentary on it that is meaningfully connected with what came before but is meaningfully new in its outcome.”

Ehrlich and Hutton are cautious about predicting outcomes for this session, but Hutton feels the Salzburg Global experience has the potential to bring about genuine progress.

He said: “The best thing that could come out of this is a lot of new people working together – true collaborations, true improvements in the dialogue and understanding for the artists what neuroscience could add. For the neuroscientists, the outcome could be meaningfully engaging artists in studies of creativity or perception.”

Ben Ehrlich and Noah Hutton were participants in the Salzburg Global session The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity and Innovation?, which is part of Salzburg Global’s long-running Culture and the Arts series. The session was supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. More information on the session can be found here:

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