The Inventive Brain

When I first looked at the paintings of Emilie Benoist I thought I was seeing very pretty versions of fMRIs —brain scans that have become one of the emblems of the contemporary neurosciences. I was struck by the apparent precision of the images. But as I approached the paintings I realized that the images had no neuroanatomical basis. In Emilie Benoist’s installations, the functional brain maps that have become so pervasive in contemporary culture were not accurate brain maps at all. I marvelled at the idea that her two-dimensional forms were a trompe-l’œil, and as such, offered a deep comment about science and in particular the neurosciences.

While it might be generally believed that science is about precision, prediction and unshakeable truths, the illusory quality of Emilie Benoist’s cortical maps seemed to be saying that the precision the popular mind associates with the sciences is as illusory as the precision I thought I saw in her fanciful reproductions of fMRI images of the human brain. In my own way I read into her designs the idea that science is not a fixed body of knowledge. Science, like art, is a never-ending pursuit.

And at the same time I read into her representations of cortical maps a challenge to the contemporary dogma of localization. For cortical maps were long held to be unassailable evidence for the contemporary belief that specific parts of the brain control specific functions, but it now appears that this dogma, like all dogmas, may be very (sometimes, dangerously) misleading.

I am reminded of one of the most famous clinical cases of the twentieth century that concerned a young man, known as H.M., who suffered from uncontrollable epilepsy. In 1953 H.M. was operated on in the hope of removing the part of his brain that was thought to cause his epileptic seizures. Though only two small pieces of brain tissue were removed, H.M. lost his entire memory forever. He couldn’t remember anything he had done since his operation, couldn’t remember what he had eaten for breakfast, lunch or supper; he couldn’t find his way around the hospital and he couldn’t recognize hospital staff or physicians minutes after being introduced to them, let alone an hour or a day later. Nor could he recognize himself in recent photos. Yet he was able to carry on a conversation for as long as his attention was not diverted.

The study of H.M., it is usually claimed, revolutionized our understanding of memory and the brain, for it revealed that there are two different kinds of memory: short-term memory, the ability to recall and recognize over relatively short periods of time, and long-term memory, the recollection of the distant past and the ability to learn and remember various motor functions, such as speaking, playing a musical instrument, walking and swimming. Each kind of memory, it was later shown, is dependent on a specific area of the brain. And yet in spite of these discoveries the true nature of memory still eludes us. The idea of a past, a present and a future is a creation of our brains. Our memories are dynamic and constantly changing and our attempts to describe them —‘short-term’ or ‘long term’— may be as illusory as the spatial design of Emilie Benoist’s cortical maps.

Indeed, the nature of memory eludes us, as does the world of colored forms. We sense as much in Emilie Benoist’s suggestive recreations of a world of long ago with grey inchoate images, graphite primitive fossil-like forms and incomplete Rorschach-like images. From this grey world, her art evolved into a colored world —the world of her brain maps. I’d like to see her abandonment of the world of grey inchoate forms as a comment on why we have brains —though she may not have been aware that this was implicit in her work.

Put simply, brains create something that is not there, and in doing so they help us understand and manipulate our environments. Colors, for example, are created by our brains to simplify and make understandable our visual worlds, just as colors appear to simplify the brain maps that make up Emilie Benoist’s œuvres.

The brain’s creativity was vividly described in the eighteenth century by the French scientist Charles Bonnet. Bonnet recounted how the partial loss of vision in elderly individuals —a loss that causes gaps (holes or scotoma) in the visual fields— was filled in by hallucinatory “Lilliputians”: little people, little birds, and little animals. These hallucinations are of neurological origin and examples of the brain’s attempt to create or invent a stable environment: the brain fills in the gaps in the visual field created by retinal damage.

Art could be seen as one of the ways the brain fills in the gaps in our sensory worlds, for art often fools us into believing it is reality. And in so doing, it becomes both a part of our reality and a comment on that reality; like science, it gives us the illusion that we understand the world around us, an understanding Emilie Benoist may be suggesting is as illusory as it is real.

Israel Rosenfield