Saturday, October 13, 2012

Chuck Close - My Life as a Rolling Neurological Clinic

So what did Close have to share in his public presentation?  

Due to health issues that left Close unable to travel, he appeared via a satellite link from his studio in NYC.   For the first half-hour he shared with us the events and circumstances in his life that shaped his art.  Among these were, poverty his family experienced, the early death of his father, the influence of his grandmother who herself was housebound by agoraphobia, his great difficulty recognizing faces, his learning disabilities, the mid-career collapse of a spinal artery that left him unable to move below his chest  and how it was that art had ultimately "saved his life".   How had art done this?  Because despite what appeared to be limitations, art allowed him to demonstrate that he still had something he could contribute.  There has been something about the accomplishments that Close has attained that has transcended his physical abilities. 

To me what this may illustrate is just how much will remain to be explained by neuroscience even if we ultimately reach a complete understanding of the biological workings of the brain.  While I am usually more comfortable in my own research working from the assumptions of a biological reductionist, the alternative explanations remain both a challenge and an inspiration for pursuing research in the behavioral and neural sciences.  

In my view, there remains no greater challenge in science than to pursue an understanding of brain function.   Yet even should we obtain such an understanding, what might ultimately remain unfathomable will surely be inspiration for the efforts of future neuroscientists.  To be a scientists is inevitably to recognize that each answer that is achieved results in an innumerable number of questions that you've likely to have never contemplated. As Close shared, the process of constructing each of his portraits was often more rewarding than the product.  Another way of expressing this is that the journey is somehow more enlightening than reaching your destination. In my experience, this is almost always the case.

To enhance his journey, at each new phase of Close's career he challenge himself to embark upon a new approach to portraiture - remove color, add it back, add elements ("incremental units") within either a horizontal, diagonal or radial grid.  In each instance, the challenge that Close set for himself seemed to me to be much like the challenge before each chemists, physicist or neuroscientist.  That challenge is to understand how such incremental units (e.g., each, element, subatomic particle or neuron), which in isolation may seem rather simple, can collectively contribute to something much greater.  

There is also something inspiring to me, and I hope to my students, about how the collective contributions of a single neuroscientist may ultimately result in achieving a much more comprehensive understanding of the brain and mind than would otherwise be attainable.  Today the total number of registrants attending the SfN conference reached nearly 28,000.  By the end of the conference that number will probably exceed 30,000.  That is very encouraging.

Lastly, there are a few things Close shared that piqued my curiosity.  For example, he described his face-blindness  as a difficulty recognizing three-dementional faces.  It was much easier for him to work from two-dimensional photographs of his subjects than the subjects themselves.  One of the great quandaries in neuroscience is the Binding Problem -- i.e., how is it that features (elements) that are represented in disparate regions or neural circuits are somehow combined to create a perceptual unity, e.g., a unique facial percept.

I wonder if there have been any studies that might indicate that face-blindness might arise in some instances from a deficit in a circuit that is responsible for binding "flat" incremental facial features into a three-dimensional facial percept.  Anyone out there know if their is any evidence of this in the neuroscience literature? Notably, most studies of prosopagnosia employ two-deimensional "flat" facial stimuli.  Might this mean that the incidence of face-blindness is even more common than is estimated?

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