The Brain in the Cave
The following is excerpted from Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science,
Evolution, published by Bloomsbury Press.
Prehistoric art is as fascinating as it is hazy and remote -- we have only shadows of its exactness, outlines or fragments of the great stories painted in caves or etched in rock. We can only speculate to what extent such works were made for practical, or sheerly aesthetic means. Ancient imagery is even more vague than the abstractions of the present when we imagine what it can do to frame the place for our species in the world. Did we need art way back then for any different reason than we do now? Are there unique clues in prehistoric art for the ultimate reasons why humans may have always needed art? Does this need separate us form or tie us further to the bowerbirds and elephants of this world?
With this sketch from the inside of the Cave of the Three Brothers in France we have a magnificent overlay of animals upon one another like the piles of images catalogued in our memories or a child's story -- drawing upon which he can easily recount the history of actions, layer upon layer, leading up to the end of the battle or the hunt. Or, you can just marvel at the energy and way the real animals so depicted swirl swiftly into abstraction. But is that only what the eye of a more contemporary viewer might see? The image must grab us before any story that tries to tell us what it means. Don't read too much about any work of art before you look hard enough so that you might actually see.
What do we see when we see the image of an animal? Is it different than any other shape? Do we see tonight's dinner, or a creature in the midst of the vast [web] of evolution on which we also appear in our own precise place? Does education or instinct define what such an image does to us? I tend to see the swirl of memory in an image like that, as when I close my eyes and think of all the myriad things that have happened to me over the past days, trying to hold onto all of this in a single image. I see the real happenings merge into a complex abstraction as I imagine a drawing of it, like the child's layered storytelling, like the camouflage hidden in a splattered Pollock.
I wonder if it is a century of abstraction seeping into our culture that as enabled me to see like that, or perhaps, these images are so many thousands of years old that we will never know. We will have to hypothesize, going for coherent explanations at the far limits of data. The ancient, venerable quality of such imagery makes us stand in awe of them. How have they lasted? Why were they made in the dark? Were they any more ritualistic and specifically meaningful than any individually expressive art made today?
There is that old truism that primal cultures are far more pragmatic than we are. When I returned from a trip in wild Labrador to the Inuit town of Kujjuaq, I talked to an old man about my two week journey. "See any animals?" he asked, a common question. "Not much," I told him. "But there was one rabbit who walked right up to my boots and sniffed them, like he had never seen a human before." "And?" he replied. "And what. He just walked away." "What?" said the native. "You didn't shoot it?" and I laughed, having learned the lesson that any arctic animal story ought to end with a roast bunny in a pot, or at least a satisfying meal. No innocent admiration for creatures when you're living close to them. Eat or be eaten, the simple practical life.
I don't know how much this story relates to layers of ancient animal imagery, but it does back up the standard notion that ancient art was meant to recount important practical stories, rather than abstract imagery common to the root forces of life. Suggesting that ancient humans are closer to the world of animals, to those aesthetic universals that may or may not exist along the evolutionary pathways of life.
If the beauty in the animal world is either evolved through sexual selection, or the result of basic patterning possible in the workings of life, then what lessons can we as humans glean from this? We evolved with all these forms appearing all around us, so we may have formed our preferences there? Or did we always want to distinguish ourselves from the animals, by asking questions about them, naming them, drawing them so we could control them?
I do not want the purpose behind anyone's art to detract attention from its beauty. More important to marvel at the bowerbirds' works than to check them off has just the most outlandish way evolution has figured out to display male quality. The attempt to understand prehistoric art may be as much a history of how we in contemporary times have strived to make sense of those human artifacts at the very limits of our ability to preserve our past.
So what are our root images, the visual thoughts at the earliest memories in our brains, those pictures that precede even language or any attempts to organize thought? This is why I am interested in the earliest glimmers of human art, not so much to explain why our species needs art so much, but to ask what are the most basic things our brains can see. We got to go far back beyond the idea of representing tasty animals that we would like to kill and eat, but into the very imagery the brain makes for itself even without any outside stimuli.
Picture yourself inside one of these dark prehistoric caves. It is so dark you can see nothing. Or is it nothing that you see? Paleolithic art has elements beyond the outlines of beautiful beasts, drawn with rare and honest energy. There is also the kind of patterns the eyes reveal even if they are closed, the lights and patterns one sees even when the eyes are closed, known as phosphenes. Scholars looking for a biophysical origin to the forms of human art go back to such images of waves, dots, zigzags, grids, and nested curves. We may see them without knowing where the images come from, either the eye or the brain. Close your eyes after staring at the sun and they appear, or in the middle of the night, in the heart of dreams. If you've seen enough abstract art you may be more inclined to take such images seriously.
David Lewis-Williams, probably the most psychologically-minded of theorists of paleolithic art, describes the origins of art not in terms of what it does for us, but how it might emerge out of attendance to these swirling brain visions. They reveal a geometry inherent in the structure of our visual system, which comes to the fore when the system is cast into sudden darkness or stressed, as in migraine headaches or when people hallucinate while taking psychotropic substances or when led into a trance through ritual methods.[i] Human societies throughout history have valued visions and trances, but of course you don't need drugs to see these things. The same kinds of images crop up in recent scientific studies of the neurobiology of sleep:
Depending on your context, you might see these as a sampling of imagery from indigenous tribal art, prehistoric patterns seen in ancient caves, or the kind of hallucinations one gets while either having migraines or taking drugs. Oliver Sacks recognized that such patterns are fundamental to the physical workings of nature, and he realized that anyone who suffers migraines would open up the pages of Haeckel's Art Forms in Nature and see not only the myriad shapes of nature's microscopic creatures, but also the visions that swirl around in his or her own head. That's Sacks's explanation for the famous visions of Hildegard of Bingen; he says they are well known to all who suffer from or study migraine headaches. The pulsing stars in the sky, the mandala-like omnivorous circle diagrams that incorporate Christian imagery with the phosphenes that pulse in our own heads -- these too are based on the fundamental patterns nature makes possible, the circle, the spiral, the star, the burst. These patterns have a fundamental gravity because they are the shapes at the very conceptual root of nature itself. Evolution makes use of them because physics, mathematics, and chemistry make them possible. They are deeper in the world than anything specifically human, and they glimmer forth in the most ancient of human art, side by side with the practical documentation of the results of the hunt and the animals of power.
Hildegard describes it like this, "I saw a great star most splendid and beautiful, and with it an exceeding multitude of falling stars which with the star followed southwards." Then they went away. "Suddenly they were all annihilated, being turned into balc coals... and cast into the abyss so that I could see them no more." Sacks describes it thus, "she experienced a shower of phosphenes in transit across the visual field, their passage being succeeded by a negative scotoma."[ii] In one of his earlier books, before he became as the great medical essayist he has become today, Sacks presents paintings done by some of his migraine patients, illustrating the visual delirium that they experience. These pictures are full of luminous, repeating, tesselated, kaleidoscopic, regular patterns like those that make up the very root fabric of existence, streaming right from within the normal visual field, like dazzle camouflage coming from within our own mind:
Today they look like images familiar from a visit to any art museum, but what did they look like to Hildegard? Glimmers of the Divine, she says, but all successful art has always had a tinge of that. Dostoyevsky also suffered from migraines, and saw in the moments when they overtook him an eternal harmony, something deeply all consuming, "during those five seconds I live a whole human existence." Each artist demands the greatest meaning from such experiences that totally consume us. It has probably been like that since humans began to reflect upon and creatively respond to the world they live in and through. The late contemporary artist Louise Bourgeois may have been thinking the same when she said, "once I was beset by anxiety. I could have cried out with terror at being lost. But I pushed the fear away-by studying the skies.... I saw myself in relationshiop to the stars. I began weeping, and I knew that I was all right. That is the way I make use of geometry today. The miracle is that I am able to do it, by geometry."[iii]
The brain that experiences such visions, be it a Paleolithic artists inside a totally dark cave or a migraine sufferer today, first apprehends the visions as a first stage of understanding, in Lewis-Williams explanation, then tries to elaborate the patterns into iconic familiar forms in the actual world: waves, lines, patterns on animals and evolved natural forms. In a third stage, shamans, visionaries, hallucinators talk about being lured into a tunnel or a vortex, where they themselves enter the patterns and forms. They become the animals graced in spots, lines, and camouflage. The whole vision takes us in.
Nancy Aiken, in her dissertation The Biological Origins of Art, collects impressive visual evidence showing how phosphenes take the same form as abstract imagery found in cultures from all over the world, and also in the doodles of children:
They are thus imagery that humans have always had the capacity to understand.[iv] How much we value them depends on what external significance they are given, or how much our appreciation of art leans toward the abstract.
This again is one reason I think we possess a heightened sense of aesthetic possibility today -- we take doodles, and hallucinations, more significantly as art so a larger, richer portion of experience is now available to us as being aesthetically interesting. And it gives support for the joy in finding intricacy and symmetry that so touched Ernst Haeckel, who spread the gospel of Darwin's evolution far and wide with his revelations of intricate, swirling, symmetrical forms showing just how much beautiful diversity life did contain. Something about symmetry has touched us for thousands of years, and it's probably not just that we see such swirls and patterns in the most intense kinds of headaches we may get. There are deeper parallels of form in all the beauties that we most wish to see, either real or imagined.
[i] David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), p. . See also James Kent, Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason (2010) http://psychedelic-information-theory.com/ebook/index.htm and Philip Nicholson and Paul Firnhaber, "Autohypnotic induction of sleep rhythms generates visions of light with form-constant patterns," pp. 56-83, Shamanism in the Interdisciplinary Context, ed. Art Leete and Paul Firnhaber, (Boca Raton: Brown Walker Press, 2004)
[ii] Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (New York: Summit Books, 1985) p. 161.
[iii] Ellen Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, (New York: Free Press, 1992) p. 84.
[iv] Nancy Aiken, The Biological Origins of Art, (New York: Praeger, 1998), p.
Image by Gruban, courtesy of Creative Commmons license.