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« Cave Paintings: Art and Religion in the Upper Palaeolithic | Main | The Business of Art: Stan Lee and Marvel Comics »

November 13, 2003

Cave Art Redux

Friedrich --

Apologies for the light blogging. I've been out of town attending to a hospitalized relative. Everything's going well, but available computer time has been minimal. I'll be back in the usual saddle early next week.

I was fascinated by your cave art posting, though. By happy coincidence, I just finished reading (in the hospital waiting room) a paper you'll probably find provoctive. It's by one of my current cognitive/anthro/neuro/evo/arty thinkers, Nicholas Humphrey. It's entitled "Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind," and it can be read here. Humphrey compares cave art to the drawings of a young, nonverbal, retarded autistic girl and comes to some surprising conclusions, which may or may not jibe with the thesis of the book you read. I thought he was especially good on the question of why the animals cave artists drew were often realistically outlined and modeled, while the human figures they drew were almost always mere stick-figure icons. Amazing stuff, in any case.

I see that Humphrey has written another paper, available online here, that may be of equal interest. This one's entitled "Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution" -- promising! But I haven't gotten around to it yet.

Eager to hear what you make of Humphrey's take on cave art.



posted by Michael at November 13, 2003



Unfortunately, I couldn't get the PDF version of Humphrey's earlier paper to open. This is the one comparing the work of autistic child Nadia to that of the cave painters. (I could read it in HTML, but I couldn't see the pictures.) However, when I tried the second paper, I found myself wondering at Humphrey's logic (as he describes it) in the original paper:

I noted the surprising fact that drawings of this quality are never produced by untrained artists today unless they are autistic,and indeed that the precondition for the ‘release’ of this artistic ability in modern human beings seems to be the lack of interference from ‘higher-level’ cognitive elaboration. And on this basis I tentatively suggested that the ice-age artists themselves may have been operating at a pre-linguistic non-conceptual level.

The so-called training he refers to is largely a matter of learning to make the shift to right brain dominance (as described, memorably, in "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.") Right-brain dominance (at least in contemporary, language-oriented humans) is an altered state of consciousness, as 'standard' consciousness is the result of left-brain (verbal, logical) dominance. The ability to make this shift is certainly enhanced, particularly for beginners, by hallucinogenic drugs.

These connections actually give us a more complicated set of alternative ways in which cave men, art and psychodelic drugs might be linked:

(1) Left-brain dominance might not have been 'standard' in those days, as perhaps people were less language-and-logic focused. Hence, no need to learn how to shift from left- to right-brain dominance. I assume Humphreys would assume that a lack of left-brain dominance was a feature of pre-modern consciousness, but I'm not so sure that it's that simple. I would guess that the truly great artistic talents--Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens--also had remarkably unfettered and direct access to right-brain consciousness.

(2) Left-brain dominance might have been fully established by then (after all, fully modern people had been around for at least 50,000 years at that point) and the use of psychedelic drugs might have promoted the shift and resulted in art. Then, over time, shamans might have learned how to make the right-brain shift without the use of drugs and become 'artists.'

(3) Autistics like Nadia might have been valued members of society at that time and 'normal' people might have learned to imitate them, possibly with the aid of psychodelic drugs. I wonder if anybody knows how shamanistic society treats the insane?

The connections are intriguing...although I suspect it would help Humphreys, like Lewis-Williams, if they had some artistic experience before discussing the roots of art!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 13, 2003 06:54 PM

I find the correspondence between the paper you reference and Betty Edwards's "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" to be very interesting. Humphrey seems to make many of the same points as Edwards, though from the other side (as it were). Edwards talks at some length about shifting between symbol mode (I don't remember her terminology and don't have the book with me now) and a right-brain mode where you actually see the forms of what you are looking at. (Apologies to those who already know her work better than I do; perhaps a majority of readers of this blog.)

It also comports well with my experiences when involved in serious right-brain activities (art, fencing, driving, etc.). When spoken to while so involved, I often have to "rerun the tape" of what was just said, or ask for a repeat, to understand the words. My worst experience of this was when involved in live fantasy roleplaying games when younger. The system required you to fence with padded weapons while simultaneously announcing numbers corresponding to the damage you were doing and adding up the damage done to you while also subtracting the damage stopped by your armor. I was a decent fencer (probably top 10% of the players) and have always been good at math, but the combination was quite difficult to manage.

ps. It looks as though Friedrich has replied while I was composing this reply. Sorry for any redundancy.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 13, 2003 07:03 PM

I get slackjawed myself when I'm in drawing class, and slur whenever I try to speak. I'm amazed by teachers who manage to speak and instruct while painting or drawing. How do they manage the trick? I suppose they've got the moves so down that they in fact don't have to move into right-brained mode in order to execute them.

I suspect that if the PDF version of the paper were behaving it'd clear up a few points. Humphrey, when he talks about training, isn't really talking about training that's designed to help you make the shift from one form of cognition to another; he's talking about art tradition and technical training -- skill at perspective and shading, etc. He's suggesting in the paper that it's possible that cave artists had instant access to what we think of as right-brain thinking and seeing because there wasn't all that much left-brain-ism going on with them. It's an interesting idea, because cave art is usually explained as evidence that, finally, here were people with access to symbolic thinking. In comparing the work of the autistic girl with the cave art, he's wondering whether what we're seeing in the cave art isn't instead the last flowering of a kind of pre-modern-human brain -- he points out, for instance, that after cave art there was a big historical gap until art showed up again, and then another long stretch before realism and modeling were achieved and valued again. (And by that point, with the aide of technical means -- training, tradition, etc.) Anyway, what do I know about any of this? But certainly fun to think about.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 13, 2003 11:58 PM

Mike, I don't know which computer platform you use, but for the Mac the MacLink Plus app 'fixes' problem PDFs just fine. If you use a PC I recommend looking for something analogous to MacLink.

Or, you may want to try downloading the PDF again. But this time download it to your harddrive instead of the browser.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 14, 2003 06:47 AM


You go slackjawed? INteresting. Some students require total silence, while others (for for example) can only work while distracted by speech. The best way to force me to concentrate is to put on a radio show or a long documentary. Nothing like endless talking to put me in a visual mind-set.

Of course, I tell myself thats cause I used to draw in lectures.


Posted by: jleavitt on November 14, 2003 11:33 AM

FWIW, I love to have music or some kind of droning conversation going on while I am drawing. Talking to someone when you're drawing also gives you a really good excuse to pause and think over what you're going to say, instead of just spitting it out.

I also tend to mostly, at least recently, draw words (not that you would be able to tell by looking at them). I guess you could call that calligraphy, but I think the goal of making the actual linguistic content as obscure as possible isn't one of calligraphy's goals.

(I think this trend is related to the fact that I have very little free time, so when I start drawing words, I immediately have the significance of the words to attach to the image, whereas drawing a tree, a scene, a person, or whatever else, is more work-intensive, both in terms of actual attention to drawing required and also with regard to the difficuly of trying to attribute and convey some sort of significance to the image.)

Posted by: . on November 14, 2003 12:58 PM

So are you all agreed on a left-brain/right-brain hyphothesis? I have read authors who disputed there was any such clear division in brain activity by type of task.

Though I suppose you could still argue that speech faculty and artistic faculty may dominate each other, without attempting to locate them in specific areas of the brain. Wish I knew more about that particular area of biology....

Posted by: emjaybee on November 14, 2003 03:29 PM

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