Science & Art: what language do you use?

27 Jan
TED 08
Image by cr8it via Flickr

I’ve just realized where is the important difference between artists and scientists – and probably the biggest challenge of the merging or communicating between these two areas. When we do research, we tend to think in words. When we paint, we tend to think in colors. When we compose, we tend to think in sounds. Our right hemisphere thinks in colors, images, feelings or sounds, while the left thinks almost exclusively in words/in symbols. This is of course an over-generalization, but still I think it’s very important point when discussing relations between science and art. Putting right hemisphere experience into words is so difficult task, that most of such attempts sounds like gibberish. Have you watched TED talk “My stroke of insight”? Jill Bolte Taylor shared her first person observations from the stroke, which turned off her left (logical and analytical) hemisphere. While she did great job (also of not going too much into details), still some commenters were complaining about scientific quality of these observations (or that she sounded like she were on drugs, which is by the way not a coincidence).

If that sound too abstract to you, consider history of discovery of benzene. Kekulé had a day dream of snake  seizing its own tail – and interpreted it correctly. And I believe this is not a single example, where solution to a scientific problem presents itself to a researcher in some non-linguistic form (or rather right hemisphere sends solution to left hemisphere). However, such stories are rare for a couple of reasons: we are not usually aware of the fact that “artistic” hemisphere can “solve” scientific problems, we lack skills to identify and translate such messages, and finally it seems unprofessional to admit that we had a “vision” that led to a successful solution.

I’m not sure about correctness of these speculations. It has been quite difficult to get to that point, exactly because of limits of linguistic description of the Art (I rarely can stand an artist’s statement), so it’s likely I’ve made some mistakes on the way. Therefore I would appreciate any help along the way.

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Posted by on January 27, 2009 in Science and Art, Visualization


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8 responses to “Science & Art: what language do you use?

  1. storypeople

    January 27, 2009 at 21:13

    I really enjoyed Jill’s video as well. I often feel that I lie somewhere in between the science vs. art argument. I’m interested in the possibilities of allowing an easier interaction between the hemispheres. I’m often fascinated by the way we make something up and then fill in the logic of it to make it happen. It will be very interesting to utilize the whole brain.

  2. gregorylent

    January 27, 2009 at 22:00

    words are traps, no doubt ..

    the difficulties facing neuroscience are a good example, burdened by english, which offers only very clunky words for such things as mind, or consciousness … sanskrit, for example, has five words for aspects of “mind”, several for aspects of “consciousness” … imagine how much more sophisticated research could be with a more granular vocabulary with which to phrase one’s hypothesis …

    brain hemispheres? … pretty well-known fact that meditation synchronizes them …

    jill bolte taylor? …. the yogic view is that she was in the self, but since her only vocabulariy for interpreting her experience was as a person burdened by concepts of hemisphere, that is how she interpreted her experience …

    art is simply listening inwards and being aware of what you feel. true of both art appreciation, and art making …. the permission to do that is more an emotional allowing than any sort of training or “creativity” … it is merely conscious sensitivity …

    scientists have this ability, of course, but are too wedded to the intellect to allow it to emerge, or to be part of the daily flow …

    and “flow” is another interesting concept, you probably will blog about that around, say, june …

    enjoy … you are really on to something with this art/science approach .. don’t stop …

    enjoy, gregory lent

  3. Shubhendu Trivedi

    January 27, 2009 at 23:26

    At the risk of sounding lame.
    I’d say that this is a great post.
    And don’t worry about the correctness of the speculations as long as they throw up new, interesting and importantly fascinating questions to which you can look for scientific answers. Even if they are wrong, the horizons of knowledge after such an experience are significantly broadened.

  4. Brutha

    January 28, 2009 at 01:23

    If that would be true there would be no problem to have scientists communicate with poets.

  5. Steve Grand

    January 28, 2009 at 17:34

    I tend to work among artists and scientists about equally (my field is artificial life and biologically inspired AI) and it occurs to me that what you’re pointing out isn’t so much a binary distinction as two ends of a continuum.

    (Btw, forget the left/right hemisphere thing – that’s misleading).

    The thing is, all creative thinkers use some kind of analogy. At the artistic end of the scale these analogies tend to be loose, suggestive metaphors. At the scientific end of the scale we build mathematical models. But in between come many shades of analogy, some more concrete and some metaphorical; some symbolic and some more touchy-feely.

    The trick, of course, is to be able to shift freely up and down the continuum as required. Not all artists or scientists can do this, sadly. Many artists are unable to anchor their thoughts in reality and many scientists are too scared to let go of certainty.

    But the good news, imho, is that there is a continuity between art and science which connects them.

  6. Abhishek Tiwari

    April 19, 2009 at 07:57

    Excellent posts, I wanted to comment on both but I will do this here only, somewhere Watson and Crick too were using their artistic imagination to draw a DNA helix. It reminds me that “After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.-Albert Einstein”

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