Three Reasons to Pursue Neuroaesthetics

What the Brain Can Teach Us About Art

Posted Jun 13, 2012

Neuroaesthetics is a new interdisciplinary field of study in which researchers attempt to understand how the brain responds to art. The hope is that this will allow us to begin to fathom one of the most mysterious yet important aspects of human experience. What happens in the brain when people listen to their favorite piece of music or appreciate a great painting? Why do all human societies create and value art? How did a creature subject to the evolutionary process evolve the need for art? Does producing art have some sort of survival value for us, or is it merely associated with some more pragmatic trait that does?

These seem like important and interesting questions, but in a recent contribution to the New York Times forum for current philosophy, The Stone, philosopher Alva Noë called out those of us who believe that this approach is promising, arguing that neuroaesthetics has so far “failed to produce interesting or surprising results about art” and that neuroscience “may just be the wrong kind of empirical science for understanding art.” This sort of skepticism is not unwelcome, it is an important part of how both science and philosophy work. New approaches need to produce clear and convincing reasons for why they deserve our already overtaxed attention. So I’ll try to respond to Noë’s skepticism by briefly listing some reasons for why neuroaesthetics is promising and should be pursued.

One of the most fascinating phenomena to come to light recently has been something scientists call “sudden artistic output”: several people have now been identified who became obsessed with art following brain damage. They practice their craft for several hours a day, and have produced works judged to be of merit by the artworld. None of these people showed any particular interest in art prior to their brain damage. Since it seems impossible that brain damage could create the structures needed to allow someone to appreciate and create art, a better option is that the brain damage either released something that was already present, but inhibited, or that it supercharged the rewarding aspects of art in these people.

In a recent article entitled “Without Taste” Heidi Maibom and James Harold make the intriguing suggestion that sociopaths are unable to appreciate art. If true, this hypothesis promises to shed light on the relations between art and our humanity. Sociopaths lack basic human capacities for empathy and compassion, hence this may indicate that art is essentially tied to these. One connection is the way that we try to understand the mind of the artist in order to understand her work. Artists present viewpoints on their subject matter, something partially accomplished by the adoption of an artistic style. Our full understanding of their viewpoints requires a kind of empathic identification with the artist. We need to know what she intended to communicate, what she intended to make us feel, or what other effect she intended to have on us.

If we refuse to look inside the skull, the tremendous variety of artworks can start to make the process of understanding what they have in common look hopeless. According to a view called “particularism” each artwork must be understood on its own merits, which may have nothing in common with any other artwork. But then how can we ever meaningfully speak and think about artists and art in general? Neuroaesthetics promises to break this deadlock by finding that the vast variety of artworks do have something in common: the response they provoke in our brains. Semir Zeki and his colleagues performed a study designed to isolate the areas of the brain’s cortex that are active when people are experiencing visual art that they regard as beautiful. In other words, they were looking for the portions of the brain that embody aesthetic experience itself. They found a common region in their subjects, a high level part of the brain known as the medial orbitofrontal cortex. Not surprisingly, this area is involved in producing emotional responses to what is perceived.

I think that we need to use every angle we can to understand art. What neuroaesthetics has to offer here is an entirely separate source of evidence, evidence that can count for or against different theories about art and its objects. Perhaps when we understand what art is, we will understand who we are.