A line is a dot that went for a walk--Paul Klee

Reductionism might seem a little hoity toity at first glance but you might be surprised how elegantly it applies to not only the brain and art but to data visualization in general.

The Matisse on the right, “The Snail”, uses swirling color blocks to mimic the swirl or pattern of a snail shell.

This only works if we have seen a snail shell, and our brain knows to compare this image to images stored in our memory.


Reductionism is any of several related philosophical ideas regarding the associations between phenomena which can be described in terms of other simpler or more fundamental phenomena. It is also described as an intellectual and philosophical position that interprets a complex system as the sum of its parts.--Wikipedia

The first example that comes to mind when thinking about reductionism in brain science would be the Punnett square. Those of us with experience studying genetics understand that this isn’t how heredity works from a biologic perspective but this simplistic rendering is helpful in understanding Mendel’s theories of inheritance.

You may be surprised to learn that Neuroscience was not considered a distinct discipline until the early to mid-1960s.

Questions began to surface like these discussed by Eric R. Kandel, “What sort of changes does learning produce in the neural networks of the brain? How is memory stored? Once stored, how is memory maintained?"


This matters upstream from data visualization. We are taught the importance of pre-attentive attributes but not the cautionary tale of how they can unduly influence our perception. These altered perceptions may be conscious or unconscious but as our brains attempt to simplify what we are viewing it is also often adding information that is not actually present--it can distort messages.

This can happen for many reasons but if we recall that visual information is processed on two different pathways, it makes a little more sense. The primary visual cortex processes information that answers the “what” we are looking at toward the bottom of the brain (inferior pathway) while information that responds to “where” is diverted to the top of the brain (superior pathway). Inferior pathway detects faces, shapes, colors, identity, motion--superior pathway is concerned with depth and spatial information. This describes the interplay between pre-attentive and attentive attributes.

Low-level processing occurs in the retina and detects images, intermediate-level processing distinguishes which surfaces and boundaries belong to specific objects, and high level processing integrates information--Reductionism in art and brain science, Eric R. Kandel

When we are observing works of art our brain associates memories of other artistic works in addition to past life experiences. I argue this happens with charts and graphics as well.

Why Visual Analytics? Pre-attentive attributes


...to be continued