Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘pscyhology’

11 NOVEMBER, 2011

How Darwin’s Photos of Human Emotions Changed Visual Culture

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What disdain and devotion have to do with the dawn of photography, evolution, and Lewis Carroll.

In 1872, some thirteen years after The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, one of the first scientific texts to use photographic illustrations. Though the work itself was hardly groundbreaking — it was based on the research of French neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, who ten years prior used electrodes to explore the human face as a map of inner states and published Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine (The Mechanisms of Human Physiognomy) — Darwin’s book is regarded not only as his main contribution to psychology, but also as a pivotal turning point in the history of book illustration, right up there with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

(More than a century later, psychologist Paul Ekman used Darwin and Duchenne’s research as the basis for his Facial Actions Coding System, or FACS — a codified approach to reading human emotion based on facial micro-expressions — on which I happened to do a decent portion of my undergraduate work and which went on to aid everyone from the CIA to animators. You may also recall the subject from our recent look at the science of smiles.)

Darwin’s contribution to many fields of science, from evolution to geology to botany, are well-known — but it turns out he was also a seminal figure in the history of visual culture. In Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution, photography curator Phillip Prodger tells the remarkable story of Darwin shaped not only the course of science but also forever changed how images are seen and made.

Prodger traces Darwin’s tireless quest to capture human emotion at its most visually expressive — not an easy task in an age when photography was both slow and painfully awkward. After scouring countless galleries, bookstores, and photographic studios, Darwin finally found the eccentric art photographer Oscar Rejlander, a titan of creative history in his own right, and recruited him to capture the emotional expressions Darwin intended to study.

A page of photographs by Oscar Rejlander from the Darwin Archive, 1871-1872. Albumen prints.

Infants: Suffering and Weeping. Heliotype print.

At first, photographs were judged in exactly the same way as prints and drawings. The same standards that applied to them — plausibility, authority, skill, and convincingness — applied equally to photographs. But photographic technology improved rapidly… It took approximately fifty years, but during the latter half of the 1800s photography moved into territory traditional drawing and printmaking could not. Once it became capable of taking pictures faster than what the naked eye could see, it began to affect measures of scientific integrity.” ~ Phillip Prodger

Joy, High Spirits, Love, Tender Feelings, and Devotion. Heliotype print.

Low Spirits, Anxiety, Grief, Dejection, and Despair. Heliotype print..

Indignation and Helplessness. Heliotype print.

But what’s perhaps most interesting is Darwin’s remarkable cross-disciplinary curiosity, a quality I believe is the key to combinatorial creativity. Though he never studied art formally, he had an active interest in art, read art history books, visited art museums, and mingled with the artists on his HMS Beagle voyage. Eventually, the sensibilities of art seeped into his work. Prodger takes a closer look at many of Darwin’s curated friendships — Lewis Carroll, iconic photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, celebrated animal painters Joseph Wolf and Briton Riviere, sculptor Thomas Woolner, and many more.

Disdain, Contempt, and Disgust. Heliotype print.

Hatred and Anger. Heliotype print.

Surprise and Astonishment, Fear and Horror. Heliotype print.

Photographic illustration was an inexact process. Because there were no present rules for using photographs in books, Darwin attempted to create them. Working at a time when printmaking still dominated scientific illustration, he internalized prevailing notions about authority and authenticity in picture making. In this regard, he was a transitional figure, with one foot firmly in the past — lessons learned from the books he knew and admired — and one foot in the future, with the enormous potential he recognized in photography.” ~ Phillip Prodger

Researchers at The Darwin Project, an ambitious initiative to digitize Darwin’s legacy and a fine addition to these 7 important digital humanities projects, are currently crowdsourcing Darwin’s experiment on emotions by asking you to name which core emotion each of Darwin’s images conveyed. The experiment features 11 images and can be completed in under a minute — give it a try.

Rigorously researched and eloquently narrated, Darwin’s Camera is an essential missing link in the evolution of visual culture at the intersection of history, psychology, and art.

HT How To Be a Retronaut; images courtesy of Oxford University Press

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01 FEBRUARY, 2010

The Century of the Self

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How smoking became cool, or why politicians want your brain for breakfast.

Written and produced by legendary British documentarian Adam Curtis in 2002 for the BBC, The Century of the Self offers an utterly fascinating four-part probe into the depths of consumerism and democracy. Though it focuses primarily on how those in power have used Freud’s theories to manipulate public opinion and perception, the series delves into the richest and most profound layers of 20th century culture, from the hidden mechanisms of advertising to the civil rights movement to the inner workings of political belief systems — all whilst managing to avoid the trap of conspiracy-theorism with incredible elegance and dexterity.

Mixed throughout the documentary footage are exclusive interviews with cultural influencers, ranging from Edward Bernays, the mastermind of modern Public Relations, to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, by way of Philip Gould and Freud’s infamous daughter, Anna.

The Century of the Self is reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s No Logo in its relentless investigation of the crafting of consumer culture, with all its whims and whimsy, only layered on top of the complex political, psychological and sociocultural forces that shaped it.

The series consists of four parts — The Happiness Machine, The Engineering of Consent, There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed, and Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering — each an hour long but well-worth the time and thought.

And though Google has kindly made all the parts available to stream for free, we suggest you do your personal collection and cultural savvy a favor, and grab a copy of the DVD — settling for flimsy footage and pixelated politicians is no way to take a stance against consumerism.

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03 DECEMBER, 2009

We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion

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Four years and 12 million feelings later, a book that lives up to its grand expectations.

In 2005, visionary artist-storyteller Jonathan Harris (whom we’ve already established we love) embarked upon an ambitious experimental journey into human emotion. The project, titled We Feel Fine, soon became an icon of interactive storytelling and data visualization. The premise was simple: Every few minutes, an algorithm would scrobble the world’s newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling,” and harvest human emotion by recording the full sentence and context in which the phrase occurs, identifying the polarity (happy, sad, depressed, etc. ) of the specific “feeling” expressed. Because the blogosphere is lined with metadata, it was possible to extract rich information about the posts and their authors, from age and gender to geolocation and local weather conditions, adding a new layer of meaning to the feelings.

The result was a database of millions of human feelings, growing by about 20,000 per day.

This week, Harris and co-author Sep Kamvar release We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion, a remarkable book exploring the 12 million human emotions recorded since 2005 through brilliantly curated words and images that make this massive repository of found sentiment incredibly personal yet incredibly relatable. From despair to exhilaration, from the public to the intimate, it captures the passions and dreams of which human existence is woven through candid vignettes, intelligent infographics and scientific observations.

With its unique software-driven model, We Feel Fine is a revelation of emotion through a prism of rational data that only makes the emotional crux deeper and more compelling. It’s the rich symphony to PostSecret‘s scattered and sporadic soundbites, transcending mere voyeurism to offer a complex, layered context that spans sociology, psychology and digital anthropology.

From sentiments about cities to approval ratings of celebrities to the effects of gender and age on emotion, We Feel Fine picks at the fabric of feeling and thought from all sides and angles to reveal a complex portrait of human essence.

You can peek inside the book online and even download many of the pages as PDF’s.

For more about the challenges of translating a web narrative onto a print medium, how the idea for the book first came up, and what’s next for Jonathan, check out our exclusive Q&A with him for Wired UK. And grab a copy of We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion — for yourself, or as one of the smartest holiday gifts out there.

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