This Is Your Brain on Culture

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Museumgoing in the Brain

Kant was right! Art demands disinterest, a special brain state.

The question is, What is going on in your brain when you look at a painting "aesthetically"? Or why don't we touch things in museums?

For a long time, people thinking about the arts have said that we go into some special state of mind when we look at paintings or other works of visual art. The idea has been floating around since the Greeks, but some English aestheticians, Lord Shaftesbury and Frances Hutcheson, spelled it out in the early eighteenth century. Then Kant, at the end of the century, put it most exactly, and Kant is

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
who most aestheticians follow. Kant said that, to enjoy works of art, we need to adopt a state of mind that he called Interesselosigkeit. Most people translate that as "disinterestedness." Kant spoke of the "free play" of imagination and understanding, a "disinterested" pleasure of pure contemplation. We enjoy the thing with no planning, no effort to do anything except enjoy it. We give up any concern about the the work of art as an object like other objects upon which we are dependent. In short, don't touch.

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Now, we're beginning to get evidence as to how brains embody Kant's idea. What is "disinterestedness" in the brain? This is one of the questions addressed in the fairly new field of "neuroaesthetics," sparked, especially, by the work of Semir Zeki.

In 2009, Gerald Cupchick, Oshin Vartanian, Adrian Crawley, and David Mikulis conducted an experiment on aesthetics that differed from most others. The experimenters didn't ask their subjects to do anything. Most experimenters in neuroesthetics ask their subjects to say whether they find a picture beautiful or not. But this is not at all Kantian "disinterestedness." In fact, Kant explicitly says that passing judgment is not being "disinterested." You must simply allow the aesthetic experience to happen to you. You need to be completely receptive and passive (except for the minimal activity essential to perception). Schopenhauer, for example, following Kant, explicitly distinguishes everyday consciousness, which serves the will, from aesthetic perception in which intellect temporarily subdues the will.

The experimenters who ask subjects to judge beauty or non-beauty are asking them to abandon Kant's "free play of the imagination" and replace it with reason and decision and will. They are not really testing the "aesthetic attitude" at all.

By contrast, the Cupchik group did not ask their subjects to do anything. As they properly put it,

Museumgoing
Museumgoing
there was no "behavioural response." Instead their subjects received "thorough instructions on pragmatic [object-identification or information-oriented] and aesethetic viewing orientations." Since this is the crux of the matter, it's worth quoting their description of what they told their subjects:

Specifically, for the pragmatic condition, they were instructed to apply an everyday informational criterion for viewing the paintings, and to approach the images in an objective and detached manner to obtain information about the content of the painting and visual narrative. In contrast, for the aesthetic condition, they were instructed to approach the painings in a subjective and engaged manner, experiencing the mood of the work and the feeling it evokes, and to focus on its colours, tones, composition, and shapes.

Finally there was a baseline condition in which the experimenters asked the subjects simply to view the images. The 32 paintings consisted of nudes, group portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes, the usual museum fare.

What, then, did the Cupchik group find? In the pragmatic condition (relative to baseline), the right fusiform gyrus came into play, a region long identified with object recognition. That's just what one would expect.

Contrasting the aesthetic and baseline conditions, they found activation in bilateral insula. The insula plays a key role in emotions. We respond more emotionally when we take an aesthetic stance. Again, that's what I would expect.

Contrasting aesthetic viewing directly with pragmatic viewing, though, they found increased activation of the left lateral prefrontal cortex (Brodmann Area 10). This is more interesting. They attribute this result to top-down control of perception toward the aesthetic orientation. In general, lateral prefrontal cortex controls cogntion but also links to higher-order self -referential processing and the evaluation of internally generated information. This finding raises, they point out, several possibilities. Medial BA 10 may be involved in suppressing attention from external stimuli while lateral BA 10, the region this study found important, focuses attention on internally generated cognitions.

Insula activation
Insula activation
In short, compared to a non-aesthetic attitude, Kant's "disinterested" stance leads to more emotion, less focus on the world outside the work of art, and more focus on one's own state of mind, including those emotions. Philosophy and neuropsychology meet and mesh.

What I like, as a spectator of this experimentation, is the way it confirms a specifically aesthetic attitude. We can spot "disinterestedness" or "aesthetic distance" in brain activity, and it differs from one's ordinary perception of the world (the "pragmatic" condition). It seems to me that this has large implications for our notions about art, particularly in relation to its evolutionary value. What adaptive value does such an aesthetic attitude have? Of what use is it, particularly since it does not include a pragmatic orientation, that is, a stance geared to survival and reproduction?

I've argued strenuously on this blog site and in my recent book (Holland 2009) that a key to our responses to literature is our not moving or planning to move. In other words, when we are enjoying visual art--or a story or a play or a movie--we adopt an aesthetic, non-pragmatic attitude. (Quite incidentally, I'm reading at the moment a fine novel, Paul Harding's Tinkers, which is simply and beautifully an exploration of this aesthetic stance over a couple of hundred pages.) With the visual arts and, I say, literature, our brains are functioning differently from the way they function in ordinary life, and that's what art is all about.

Work I've referred to:

Cupchik, G. C., Vartanian, O., Crawley, A., & Mikulis, D. J. (2009, June). Viewing artworks: Contributions of cognitive control and perceptual facilitation to aesthetic experience. Brain and Cognition, 70(1), 84-91.

Holland, N. N. (2009). Literature and the brain. Gainesville FL: PsyArt Foundation.

Kant, I. (1914). Critique of judgment (J. H. Bernard, Trans.). London, Macmillan (original work pubished, 1790).

Zeki, S. (1999). Inner vision: An exploration of art and the brain. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Norman Holland is the author of Literature and the Brain and fifteen other books applying psychology to the arts. He is Eminent Scholar Emeritus at the University of Florida.

Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.

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