The Art + Brain Files

Illustration by Swanny Mouton

Illustration by Swanny Mouton.

An Introduction to Neuro-Aesthetics

This is all about, in a word, perception.

Neuroaesthetics is an emerging field of study haunted by interdisciplinary practitioners who all have one thing in common: they are using new understandings of cognitive science to approach the fine arts. Technologies that were developed to better study the brain are being repurposed in order to study painting, music, literature, and cinema. Some of the most interesting proponents of a neurological approach to art include writers Semir Zeki, Margaret Livingstone, Oliver Sacks, Jonah Lehrer, VS Ramachandran, Walter Murch, and programs like RadioLab.

Neuroaesthetics gives us an opportunity to reframe classical and contemporary art. Classical artists may not have known the exact science of perception, but intuitively understood how the brain perceives the world. Some contemporary artists are taking advantage of recent breakthroughs in neuroscience and applying it directly to their work. Painters like Cézanne and Mondrian had an intuitive sense of how the brain works; contemporary artists like Nathan Cohen and Tatsuo Miyajima have had exposure to cognitive science and apply it directly to their work. In the coming posts, I’ll explore both of these tracks. Imaging devices like MRIs and eye-tracking are allowing us to study the circuitry of the brain in much greater resolution and depth than ever before. Now, we have a means to peer directly into the brain in a way where, previously, we could only guess.

However, with new tools come new responsibilities.

Illustration by Swanny Mouton

Illustration by Swanny Mouton

The field of neuroaesthetics is growing yet anxiety surrounds this field of study. Some say it is too reductionist. Others say it is a cold approach and leaves little room for heart. The debate goes back to the Englishmen John Keats and Isaac Newton in the Romantic era. After Newton successfully decoded the optics behind the phenomenon of rainbows, Keats criticized his science for maiming the “poetry” of the rainbow by “reducing it to the prismatic colours.”

If we take a scientific approach to art, does it leave room for the poetry of interpretation? I would argue, yes. Good art will forever defy simple interpretation. Neuroaesthetics is just another tool for understanding human creativity. A scientific approach to art is never going to deflate the magic of the creative process.

Cognitive science is intimidating because it is complex. And for people with humanities backgrounds, the language of brain anatomy can be bewildering. And yet its very complexity is what makes it so compelling. Some may feel this lens is cold because it is clinical. Yet neuroaesthetics is at the very core of what it means to be human. How we see informs how we feel. Studying the biology of vision helps explain why we feel certain ways about art.

Our understanding of the brain will only ever get more complex. The more we learn about the inner workings of the mind the more we realize how little we really know. But the literature is out there and many good writers are tackling this labyrinthine subject.

Neuroaesthetics provides a radical new way of looking at art. It sheds light not only on the art itself, but how we perceive the world and the beauty therein. It gets down to the very deepest philosophical discussions about perception and art. And, if nothing else, it makes for a highly spirited debate.

As a guest blogger for the next couple weeks, I want to push myself, readers, and museum audiences to challenge our personal understandings of perception, as well as conventionally held wisdoms on the topic. Expect a series of articles about perception and the brain, the artists who have explored this territory, and the mind-bending scholars who have tried to decode what they’ve done.


  1. Docsson says:

    These sound, to me at least, the same comments that were (and for some continue to this day) made against photography being considered as fine art.

    If we take a scientific approach to art, does it leave room for the poetry of interpretation? I would argue, yes. Good art will forever defy simple interpretation. Neuroaesthetics is just another tool for understanding human creativity. A scientific approach to art is never going to deflate the magic of the creative process.

    Neuroaesthetics provides a radical new way of looking at art. It sheds light not only on the art itself, but how we perceive the world and the beauty therein.

    Reply

  2. Pingback: Brain on the Beach: Seven Essential Sources for Art and Cognitive Science | Art21 Blog

  3. Nancy Roslyn Rappaport says:

    For anybody in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, here’s information about an event tomorrow (Friday, February 22, 2013) about neuroaesthetics and the visual brain:

    https://www.facebook.com/events/428519073889829/
    Twitter: #NeuroArtsAU

    How does the brain experience art? Why does it move us? Do aesthetics evolve biologically? The 2013 American University Arts Management Spring Colloquium explores the growing field of neuroaesthetics with an emphasis on the visual brain. Artist Shahin Shikhaliyev will give a lecture, followed by a panel discussion with Terry Davidson and Art Shapiro from the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience moderated by Andrew Taylor from the Arts Management program. The event is accompanied by an exhibition of Shikhaliyev’s works which are on display Feb 5-24. Presented by the Arts Management Program in conjunction with the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience and the American University Museum.

    Abramson Family Recital Hall; Admission is free

    A related post on the same Facebook page:

    A study in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics described the gains made by students at Hoover Elementary School in the San Francisco Bay Area who struggle with academics by placing them in a music-based program to teach fractions students in a music-based program scored significantly higher on math tests than their peers who received regular instruction. The program, “Academic Music,” is a hands-on curriculum that uses music notation, clapping, drumming and chanting to introduce third-grade students to fraction. At the end of the study the students in the music-based program scored 50 higher compared to students in the regular math class. The program produced similar results at another school, Allen Elementary School, a San Bruno public school serving many students from low-income families and where 60 percent of students don’t speak English as their first language.

    Neuroaesthetically speaking, I believe there must be an arts-education connection in the brain that directly impacted on these results, which merits further exploration and study.

    http://www.sfsu.edu/~news/prsrelea/fy12/031.html

    Reply

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