Portraiture, Identity, Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence

—Sharing some reading that informs my work

 

 

As an artist dealing with figurative works and portraiture I am obviously interested in physical appearance, but also in how art can go beyond ‘face value’.  No matter how objective we try to be, we are always going to bring our own biases to making or viewing art. Our realities are likely to be subtly different so what is true for one person is not necessarily so for another.  A few years ago, I was reading ‘Nine Tales: Stone Mattress’, by Margaret Atwood. This is a collection of insightful, witty fictions, one of which features a character with Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Sufferers have damage in the optic pathway or brain, and experience vivid and complex hallucinations, for example Wilma in ‘Torching the Dusties’ sees elaborately dressed little people. This type of hallucination is not confined to those with eyesight problems, and I wondered at once how much the reportage of such misunderstood experiences has contributed to the folklore of leprechauns and other “supernatural” beings.  This could be an experience that is both real and unreal!

Reading fiction has always offered a way to experience someone else’s reality, but I hadn’t thought much about how other people actually see the world (i.e. their biological vision). Which brought me to the work of the late author, naturalist and neurologist Oliver Sacks. In ‘The Mind’s Eye’ there are many examples of how an individual’s sight can vary from the ‘norm’, including cases of Charles Bonnet Syndrome, prosopagnosia (the inability to recognise faces), alexia (the inability to read words) and monocular vision (no stereo vision = no depth perception). Sacks’ ‘Hallucinations’, his ‘anthology of hallucinations’, contains more fascinating accounts of Charles Bonnet Syndrome and other kinds of unusual sensory experiences of ‘organic’ origin, including migraine and epilepsy. http://www.oliversacks.com

The cultural significance of hallucinations is particularly interesting, and societies have effectively validated and absorbed many visions into their art, mythologies and religions. I would urge anyone who thinks they have had divine, ecstatic or supernatural experiences to read this book (and anyone who has not). Enjoyment of many of Sacks’ books prompted me to read more about the brain, for example the neuroscientist Ramachandran’s ‘The Tell Tale Brain: Unlocking the Mystery of Human Nature’ and the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s ‘Do No Harm’ (both highly recommended). There are so many factors to explore in the formation and destruction of an identity.

I’ve been reading  Marvin Minsky’s 1986 book ‘The Society of Mind‘.  A computer scientist, mathematician and ‘Father of Artificial Intelligence’, Minsky (who died aged 88, in 2016) sets down a wide range of theories about the mind, covering concepts such as self, memory, learning, emotion, reasoning, language and expression. He developed these largely from working, with Seymour Papert, on the creation of a robot that used a mechanical hand, a video camera, and a computer to build with children’s blocks. In doing so he needed to identify the mental agents, or processes responsible for various actions involved in ‘building’ and how they were organised as part of a larger society.

According to Minsky, the ‘Self’ can be seen as a society of ideas about what the mind is, and what we think it should be (our ideal). The concept of an ideal or edited self makes a lot of sense to me— in order to be trusted by others, which is necessary for good relationships, and indeed for us to achieve our own goals, we need to be able to rely on ourselves to behave in certain ways. Society reinforces these ideals and behaviours, often with punishments or rewards. 

books on neuroscience and the self

In portraiture, there is often the unspoken expectation of the sitter or viewer that the aim of a portrait is to capture the ‘essence’, ‘soul’ or ‘personality’ of a sitter…whatever that is!  A person is a complex subject, and one that I think is unknowable in the strictest senseeven if we are looking in a mirror. We can make assumptions but we don’t really understand the complexity of the brain. I was always troubled by our society’s inclination to categorise personality types in a simplistic and fixed way.  I’m thinking of  Sun signs for example, or  those endless psychological tests found in magazines and online. Predictability makes for an easier life, and I suppose, offers more security in relationships.

Thanks to such writers, I have reevaluated my ideas about identity and how we can express our understanding of it. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the scientific, reductionist portrayal of the Self with the more sweeping narrative (mythologising?) attempts to convey the Self through art. In a portrait, we are generally only presenting what we can describe…this is superficial, but how we love to dismiss contradictions in others and also in ourselves! This editing of life in general is perhaps necessary in order to prevent us from drowning a sea of confusing impressions. Such writings on ‘the Self’ inform my  work, which can be quite ambiguous. The idea that a portrait can/should somehow distill the spirit of a person into something you can bottle & mix with tonic, is unrealistic. Like any artwork, a portrait can only be an edit, but one that might offer a little more information about the subject— and some about the artist too.

I’m not an academic, scientist or philosopher, nor do I aim to claim to have any answers to Life’s Great Mysteries, I’m just interested in the discussion. We live in fascinating, exciting and frightening times! Unless you’ve been alone living in a cave with no wifi for the last few years, you will be familiar with the notion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and some of the worries surrounding it, explored for example in Will Knight’s The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI (technologyreview.com). If you haven’t explored Google Deep Dream’s imagery, there are some examples in the latter article. Check out Peter Norvig’s guide to AI Instant Expert: Artificial Intelligence (newscientist.com). For a taste of  the latest perceived dangers of AI, see here: the real dangers of AI. The full academic report is available here: https://maliciousaireport.com.

It seems ironic that we are creating AI with all its unknown implications when we don’t yet understand our own intelligence. On that note, I’m going to leave the last word to Siri:

Siri's answer

 

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