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Neuroaesthetics: Responding to the Critics

Ready or Not, the Neuroscience of Art Has Arrived

The creation of an entirely new approach to the study of art—called neuroaesthetics—that brings neuroscientific findings to bear in the attempt to understand art, has been met by withering criticism from the art establishment and from the existing academic fields that study art. In an earlier post, called Three Reasons to Pursue Neuroaesthetics, I described some of the most promising lines of inquiry in this new field. In this one, I will play a bit of defense by describing several of the main criticisms that have been levelled against the neuroscientific approach to art and offering responses to them.

Criticism 1: “Neuroaesthetics is reductionistic.”

First let’s be clear about what exactly this means. In making this charge, people mean that some way of speaking and thinking is going to be eliminated. I think what they are opposing is an approach something like this:

“Aesthetic experience” is not real. What is real are certain brain states.

But I am not aware of any approach in neuroaesthetics that makes claims like this. On the contrary, most approaches are the opposite of this, in that they are expanding rather than reducing the ways available to us to speak about our experience of art. They do not deny the reality of aesthetic experience, rather, that is the phenomenon they seek to understand. These different approaches can then cross-fertilize one another to deepen our understanding of art and why we love and need it. Surely it is better to have more disciplines approaching a problem, so that each can produce and test hypotheses about it. This also allows interdisciplinary researchers to follow lines of inquiry across disciplinary boundaries, creating new hybrid approaches, or finding contradictions between the approaches of different disciplines. Resolving such contradictions is usually a productive process, since it forces researchers to thoroughly test each side of the contradiction in an effort find where the problem is.

Criticism 2: “We will never learn anything about art by examining the brain.”

Typically those making this criticism argue that everything we need to know about humans and their art is on the surface, in our behavior, in the social interactions between artists and their public, in the institutions of the artworld, such as written criticism about artists, and in the artworks themselves, which are, with some interesting exceptions, publicly observable. Behaviorism was the predominant paradigm within psychology and philosophy of mind from about 1930 until about 1980, although it is still alive within philosophy, which tends to be more conservative and move more slowly than psychology. It died in psychology and other related sciences when it became apparent that new approaches that involved simulating brain activity, such as using computers to simulate brain processes in the field of artificial intelligence, and directly investigating brain activity, as happens in neuroscience, were going to be fruitful. Behaviorism has clung doggedly on in philosophy for what I suspect are largely irrelevant reasons. Philosophers tend to prefer logical, conceptual, or a priori modes of reasoning to the probabilistic reasoning that scientists excel at. Externalist approaches seem to offer a sort of completeness that these types of reasoning require: all the information is available, on the surface, for anyone to access. The move to neuroscience, on the other hand, brings with it the idea that vast amounts of information are missing, and in the process of being revealed, and that the researcher of the mind must begin a long apprenticeship in neuroscience in order to begin to access the mountains of information it is now producing, something that most philosohers are uncomfortable doing.

Criticism 3: “You neuroaestheticians are just a bunch of #%&@*’s.”

For instance, literary critic John Carey referred to V. S. Ramachandran and I as “the Laurel and Hardy of neuroaesthetics” (see Carey, 2010. See Ramachandran and Hirstein, 1999, for the article that precipitated this). Perhaps we should be honored by being compared to one of the finest comedy teams in history (although we spent some time wondering which one of us was Laurel and which Hardy), but of course we get the idea: our approach to art was comical to Carey.

Of course we don't sound like Carey's fellow literary critics, we come from a completely different field. But one should not confuse form with content. Interdisciplinary cooperation requires that we all look past narrow disciplinary conventions and focus on the forming new approaches to our questions. It is certainly curious, in an age in which there is near-unanimous agreement that interdisciplinary research is a good thing, to encounter experts who devoutly wish that those in another discipline not cooperate with it. Frankly, it smacks of someone protecting what they perceive, consciously or not, as a racket. As things currently stand they are known as experts in the realm of art and the attempts to understand it. But if neuroscience is let into the realm of inquiry, they will lose this status and possibly become marginalized, if they continue to refuse to learn anything about it, or so they fear. I don’t believe that this is a worry, or that it should be, since as I have made clear, my approach is that a diversity of views on art is good and welcome.

Criticism 4: “Neuroscience cannot explain the diversity of art.”

Instead of being a weakness of the neuroscience based approach, this is actually one of its strengths. What the great diversity of artworks has in common is a set of responses that they produce in us when we understand them. Especially within the 20th century, artists have vastly expanded the set of artworks by pushing, sometimes deliberately, the boundaries of what can count as an artwork. This has made any traditional approach that involves attempts to devise criteria that exhaustively cover the set of artworks begin to seem hopeless. But it cannot be that there is nothing that artworks have in common, because this threatens to completely dissolve the entire concept and activity of art. If we are not using any criteria at all to determine what counts as an artwork, then it seems that everything and anything is an artwork, and everyone is an artist. But there is a solution. Despite the great diversity of artworks, similar things happen in our minds and brains when we contemplate them.

Criticism 5: “Neuroscience might be able to explain x, but it will never be able to explain y.”

The technique in science is to work from the more approachable problems toward the more difficult ones. The only way to know for sure which problems are approachable is to try them all and see which ones we are able to make progress on. We are often mistaken in our a priori judgements of which problems are the easy ones and which are the hard ones. The ancient Greeks attempted to solve the problem of describing turbulent air or water flow with mathematical equations, and had little success. In the early days of artificial intelligence, researchers confidently predicted that we would have flawless language translators in a couple of years, something we have made great progress on, but still do not quite have fifty years later. Problems getting computers to parse the subtleties of speech, such as irony and metaphor, have proven difficult to overcome.

Two of the areas typically claimed to be unapproachable by science are artistic creativity and the conscious mental states of the artist. Those will be the last two criticisms I will respond to.

Criticism 6: “Neuroscience cannot capture artistic creativity.”

It is not as if each work of an artist is de novo. Those who study his work will find certain patterns and techniques. These evolve over time of course, but they are there. Creative people often employ algorithms that allow them to produce new ideas, which are then judged for worth according to a complex set of increasingly sophisticated criteria that they employ. Understanding how the brain creates has indeed proven difficult, but somehow it does it, and on the assumption that the brain is an entirely physical system, we can begin to understand its secrets.

Criticism 7: “Neuroscience cannot explain consciousness, and that is crucial to understanding art.”

One sees extreme claims, such as the one made recently by Alva Noe in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times critical of neuroaesthetics (Noë, 2011): “the fact is that we actually don’t have a better understanding of how the brain might produce consciousness than Descartes did.” But even a glance into the current neuroscience of consciousness would show that nothing could be further from the truth. Basic, preliminary theories of consciousness have been developed and are being tested along many fronts. For example, if a neuroscientist hypothesizes that consciousness is brain process x, there are dozens of ways to test this: What does the person experience and report when x is manipulated? What happens when brain damage compromises process x? Does x have the sort of connections to the brain's perceptual systems, to its emotion systems, its memory systems, and its action creating systems that we already know our conscious states have?

The immense difficulty in explaining consciousness in physical terms has caused some thinkers to give up (see, for example, McGinn, 1999). But fortunately they haven’t simply given up, they have provided principled reasons for why they believe the problem cannot be solved. One of these reasons is what appears to be a wall of privacy surrounding our conscious experience. The neuroscientist can produce all sorts of images of my brain, but she can never gain knowledge of what it is like for me to experience my brain, the claim is. Not so fast though. There are already experiments that have proven successful in allowing researchers to determine what is going in the conscious minds of their subjects, for instance, allowing them to guess with a level of accuracy well above chance what a person is thinking about or concentrating on (see Richmand, Rees, and Edwards, 2012, for a new collection of such research).

But again, the opposition claims: Neuroscience might be able to guess based on indirect measures what a person is seeing or thinking about, but it will never be able to directly access the consciousness of its subjects, in the way that they have access to their own conscious states. This proves, they believe, that conscious states lie forever beyond the realm of science, and perhaps also shows that they are non-physical in a way that gives support and comfort to the minority of thinkers who hold some version of dualism, the idea that the mind or its features exist in some other non-physical realm. Surely there is no one who would claim that neuroscientists can gain this direct access to the minds of their subjects. Well, there is at least one person, and that would be me. In my recent book,Mindmelding: Consciousness, Neuroscience, and the Mind’s Privacy (Hirstein, 2012), I argue that there actually is a way in which the brains of two people, perhaps a researcher and her subject, could be connected by physical processes that would allow the researcher to directly experience the conscious states of her subject, in the same intimate way that the subject herself experiences them.

There are of course huge ethical issues that arise with the possiblity of such a violation of the greatest privacy that we humans have ever known. However, if we understand this attempt in a medical context, the ethical issues can be seen to be outweighed by the tremendous therapeutic benefits that such a technique could have. It would allow researchers, for the first time, to directly understand all manner of mental illnesses and other maladies that have a significant conscious component, such as schizophrenia, autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorcer. The researchers could experience hallucinations, synesthesia, and sensory disorders such as tinnitus, or astigmatism directly, in order to diagnose them vastly more accurately.

Carey, John. 2010. What Good Are the Arts? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hirstein, William. 2012. Mindmelding: Consciousness, Neuroscience, and the Mind’s Privacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McGinn, Colin. 1999. The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World. New York: Basic Books.

Noë, Alva. 2011 "Art and the Limits of Neuroscience," New York Times, Dec. 4, 2011.

Ramachandran, Vilayanur, and Hirstein, William. 1999. “The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience. The Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6: 15-51.

Richmond, Sarah, Rees, Geraint, and Edwards, Sarah J. L. (editors). 2012. I Know What You’re Thinking: Brain Imaging and Mental Privacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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