Neuroaesthetics - Your Brain on Art

18 August 2016

There’s a new and exciting discipline that combines traditional aesthetics—the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of beauty and artistic taste—and the latest brain science. It’s called neuroaesthetics.

Research in neuroaesthetics involves measuring brain activity, using technology like fMRI machines, when subjects look at works of art. It also involves looking at people with different brain disorders and seeing how this affects their ability to appreciate or create art.

You might wonder how looking at someone’s brain can ever answer the big questions of aesthetics—like, what is beauty? Or, what is aesthetic taste? Isn’t neuroaesthetics just another attempt on the part of science to encroach on philosophy’s turf?

Perhaps we should not expect neuroaesthetics to directly explain the big questions of aesthetics. However, it can shed some light on why humans judge certain works of art as beautiful, how we experience art, how that is different from other kinds of experiences, and perhaps even why some humans are compelled to create incredible works of art. 

For example, there are many anecdotes about artists who suffer some kind of brain damage or disease, which changes their artistic abilities. There are documented cases of artists becoming better as a result of these changes in their brains.

Take Willem de Kooning, the famous American-Dutch abstract expressionist painter, who developed Alzheimer’s in the last years of his life. During this time period, he produced what some critics consider to be the best work of his career.

There’s also Franco Magnani, the “memory artist,” studied by neurologist Oliver Sacks. After he developed a seizure disorder, he started to paint these incredibly detailed scenes of the Italian town he grew up in. These paintings had an almost photographic level of precision and accuracy, despite the fact that Magnani had not seen his hometown in several decades.

Another interesting case discussed by Sacks, as well as neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, is that of Nadia Chomyn, an autistic child who started drawing remarkably realistic pictures of horses from about three years old. However, as she started to develop more speech skills in later childhood, she eventually lost her artistic abilities and stopped drawing altogether.

These are fascinating stories, no doubt. But what do they really tell us about aesthetics or artistic talent? By themselves, I don’t think they show anything. But they do point the way to future research. If neuroscientists started to study these kinds of cases in a systematic way, they could start to understand which parts of the brain are involved in artistic creativity and how changes to the brain affects this ability.

Still, there’s reason for some skepticism, especially when we consider how subjective, not to mention culturally contingent, art appreciation is. Did de Kooning really create some of his greatest art during the period he suffered from Alzheimer’s? The answer to that question depends on who you ask. Certainly, it would be hard to argue that there’s some objective fact of the matter. 

What counts as good art, or what counts as art, period, seems always up for debate. Take conceptual art—like Marcel Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain,” which was basically a porcelain urinal that he submitted to a New York exhibition under the pseudonym “R. Mutt.”

Is this art? Maybe. Many people certainly call it that. But there’s also those who simply don’t get it. How can purchasing an ordinary functional object and putting it into a art gallery suddenly make that object “art”?

What light can neuroaesthetics shed here? It will not be able to adjudicate the debate between those who like Duchamp's work and those who just don’t get it. But one thing that might be interesting to see is what’s going on inside the brain of someone who loves conceptual art and compare it to the brain of someone who is just nonplussed by it. Surely, that could shed some light on art appreciation more generally.

It would also be interesting to see which systems in the brain are involved in the different stages of perceiving, processing, and evaluating works of art. I imagine the limbic system, which controls basic emotions, and the reward system have got to be part of the picture.  

Art produces a variety of reactions in us. And we can be moved by art in all sorts of ways without finding it especially beautiful. Art can disturb us, it can make us sad, it can puzzle us, and inspire us. It can also give us glimpses into the sublime. Human responses to art are complex, so it will be interesting to learn how this complexity in subjective response is reflected in what happens in the brain.

So, while neuroaesthetics is still just a burgeoning field of inquiry, it promises to reveal some fascinating insights into artistic talent and aesthetic experience.

Comments (11)


sageorge's picture

sageorge

Friday, August 19, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Many neuroscientists are

Many neuroscientists are skeptical of some claims made for fields such as neuroeconomics, neuroeducation, and neuroesthetics.  The underlying working hypothesis in neuroscience is that every behavior and mental event has a correlate in brain activity.  If this hypothesis ever needs to be abandoned in some situation, it would mean accepting a kind of magical extreme dualism in which mental life lies totally outside the natural world.   So far there appears to be no need to abandon the working hypothesis.  If what these neuro-something fields are doing is simply re-asserting the working hypothesis that there are brain correlates of human activity, then of course it isn?t problematic, but it?s also not very novel or interesting.  However, overreaching does happen in those fields, when a big deal is made of functional imaging studies as if these constitute advances in understanding economics, education, esthetics, or other fields.  This overreaching is now being called, pejoratively, ?neurorealism? ? the false idea that something people all over the world have experienced for millenia is supposedly ?real? only if a brain correlate of it is found.   (A good accessible article about this is at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1524852/ - scroll down to the part about neurorealism.)
Laura?s essay is written in a generous spirit, characteristic of her, and gives a reasonable argument for neuroscience making some contribution around the margins in the field of esthetics.  Certainly it is fascinating to find how brain activity differs in people in various states of esthetic appreciation or neurological conditions.  However, I think genuine advances in understanding esthetics, as well as economics and education, are unlikely to be found in the output of a brain scanner.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, August 20, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The simple fact of the matter

The simple fact of the matter is we have no right to anticipate what impact we are having upon each other. A urinal as a museum exhibit is a prank. But insofar as it highlights, rather than arrogates, this fact it may be of some amusement, which we may "get" or not. An MRI measures the activity of radio-labeled  sugar consumption. But this is at least as crude a measure of anything as the little lights that some early computers flashed as a display of CPU activity. As if you could measure the efficiency of an office by counting up how many cups of coffee are consumed in it. But the mind is not an Enigma machine, and even if it were such a crude measure would tell us nothing of what is actually being communicated there. If we knew how much voltage the Enigma system used and tried to decipher the messages being sent on the basis of that info alone we would have lost the war. But, again, the mind is not a machine. We do not yet even grasp the logic of it, let alone the biology. It is possible to reason in a disciplined and rigorous way far in excess of what logicians or the "analytic school" would now have us believe. And "Neuro-" anything, pursued as if a philosophically interesting subject is a matter more of dogma than of science or art. But the whole point is that art is a dramatic interaction amongst us orbiting the urgent issue of how we understand each other and our world if, far from having a prior claim on that understanding, we need to set each other free to make that understanding as real as may be. Something happens in the brain, sure, but it also happens between and amongst us. The "analysis" of any one "brain" is too crude to achieve the least inkling of what the mind gets up to, and too isolated to give the least inkling of what goes on between the artist and the spectator. You can't expect to find the meaning of our needing each other free in a system hell-bent on tying us down to predictive and mechanistic formulas.

sageorge's picture

sageorge

Saturday, August 20, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

It is good to note the

It is good to note the limitations of brain scanning methods like magnetic resonance imaging, as Gary Washburn does in this post.  The smallest volume MRI can probe contains millions of neurons doing lots of different things; only the average activity is measured.  The shortest time MRI can focus on is thousands of times longer than events in individual neurons such as nerve impulses.  The raw data from a scanner is a sequence of numbers; the dramatic false-color images of brain areas ?lighting up? are the product of much statistical manipulation by computers.   However, these limitations don?t render MRI studies useless.  Done competently and published in peer-reviewed journals, they do show which brain areas are more metabolically active than others under given conditions.  Localization of function in the brain has been known for centuries, and MRI is just a recent method to add to our knowledge of it.  (By the way, MRI doesn?t involve ?radiolabelled sugars?? that would be other methods such as PET.  MRI detects the amount of oxygen bound to hemoglobin in the blood, using magnetism, not radioactivity.  However, Gary Washburn?s point is that it measures neural activity only indirectly, which is true.)
More tendentious is saying ?Minds are not machines.?  Much would depend on exactly what one is referring to in both the subject and the predicate in that claim.  To me it is not convincing to deny categorically that mental phenomena such as thinking and feeling could be either neural activity itself, or an aspect of neural activity, or a direct product of neural activity.  While the organization of nerve cells in the brain is arguably more complex than anything else, those nerve cells contain no component or chemical element not found elsewhere in nature.   It is comforting to believe in human specialness, but in other areas that notion has been debunked:  where we?re located in the universe, what our bodies are made of, whether we can escape the laws of thermodynamics.  The last refuge for those pining  for specialness is in the relation of our minds to our brains.   At this point, the most productive working hypothesis is that we?ll eventually see how it fits in with the rest of nature.
- Steve George

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, August 20, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks for the correction, I

Thanks for the correction, I thought I was getting that wrong. But it is not dualism to suggest that matter gets up to more than instrumental reason can get a glimmer of. Matter does lots of queer things that we tend to ignore at the macro-scale. And the life of the cell is more individual than present methods can observe. And that shortcoming ties into the inadequacies of our rational model. How does a mass of cells add up to an organism if there is no external design or operator? No, I did not say there is such a design or operation, but that the design and operation of the organism arises from of highly individualized activities of the cells. It is not a relation of servitude, but of differentiation. Similarly with rational forms, each proposition is formed by a subject a predicate, and a qualifier. The qualification does not extend as the continuity of the rational form, but differentiates it. Life, not just human life, is the spontaneous expression of that differentiation that clinches the real as a differing that does not sustain the rational and mechanical systems we use to probe them. But if a human can see this and yet our systems of reasoning and our machines, engineered to reflect that reasoning, cannot penetrate that difference, this hardly means that it is claiming special a status to refer to it. Rather, it is the rationalists who make the special claim in the face of overwhelming evidence, not that humanity is "spiritual" or "transcendent", but that our systems of reasoning and instruments are deliberately designed to hide their own inadequacies. All matter everywhere gets up to some damn strange behavior that is still not quite squeezed into the box made for it. The quantifier is incapable of revealing the role of the qualifier. The micro individual impacts the macro as the qualifier, but the macro gets read as the quantified. Reason may be blind to the difference, but life is not. Humanity is not special in this, as life goes, but we are rather more articulate than the rest. It's a shame if that quality gets lost in the grosser scale of the count. But wherever a reasonable critique gets dismissed tout court implacable dogma is at the root of it. It is not dualism to point out that there is more to matter, everywhere in the universe, than mechanics can embody.  

sageorge's picture

sageorge

Sunday, August 21, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

?Emergent properties? are

?Emergent properties? are well-known in science.   Molecules have properties that could never have been discovered by studying individual atoms ? properties such as enzyme action that might seem so qualitatively different from those of atoms that they could never be explained in terms of atomic properties.  However, studying molecules carefully reveals new regularities  that are eventually understood as potentialities of individual atoms.  At the next level up, aggregates of molecules have properties that would never have been discovered by studying molecules in isolation.  For example, surface tension: the property of liquids that leads to formation of drops and blood rising up a capillary tube.  Again, studying liquids leads to an understanding of molecules? potentialities in this situation, not by postulating an ad hoc surface tension force but by discovering general intermolecular interactions that also explain other things such as how two strands of DNA stick together.   It would have been unproductive for people in the past to have said, ?Nothing we know about individual molecules in isolation could predict how liquids form drops ? this is a qualitative difference that science with its merely quantitative obsession could never explain.?  In the same way, why is it implausible that mental phenomena and complex behavior could eventually be understood in terms of even higher-level interactions and processes among and within brain cells?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, August 21, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

It's a fascinating subject,

It's a fascinating subject, and seems to have hit upon your area of expertise, but I suppose nothing could be read into the properties of a link that would imply the properties of a chain, or of a cog (individual tooth) the properties of a gear. All the same, it still comes down to synchrony, it just hides a bit, like the sound that only becomes audible in a noisy background. I'm suggesting something more of a complementary contrariety. Each individual differs from all others such that the whole is emancipated from its antecedence. That emancipation is not the effect or act of any one, but the inability to so assign its source is the effect and act of each one. The only real agency is departure. The only pure act is death. Or, in the case of individual cells, differentiation so complete that the organism as a whole is bound to die (because only reproductive cells conserve the state of "stem"). The organism is a community of sister cells each receded from what is "emergent" of it. It is easy to forget that each cell has that intimate history in the development and life of the organism, and is in that sense irreplaceable without loss. And this certainly includes neurons. But in the logical sense the qualifier is the verb. It is not a quality or "qualia" in the sense of a property or attribute. It is the active character between subject and predicate of each being the other (if the proposition is transitive in any sense). And if that action is indeed active, then the character of the proposition is not continuous to its extension. Difference ensues through which the terms are completed and formal relations realized. But this means the character of those terms limited to the propositional content is a caricature of a dynamic that conceals the fuller meaning of its terms. There is a dynamic to the character of all terms and to our grasp of formal principles that rigid laws of inference more of less deliberately hide. I call it characterology. It is not emergent, since its prime action is to withdraw.  As to the aesthetics theme, it's not about the impact we have on each other, but about the impact we recognize we have no right to have. It most certainly is not about which blob in the brain is showing signs of something we call "brain activity", without a clue what that might mean.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, August 21, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I was unfamiliar with the

I was unfamiliar with the term "neurorealism." I think you capture perfectly the problem with a lot of neuro- approaches to philosophical problems, namely that they waver between stating something not very novel or interesting, e.g. something happens in your brain before you make a conscious decision, and overreaching, e.g. the activity in your brain before you make a conscious decision is itself a decision and therefore we have no free will. 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, August 22, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

But is it love or ostentation

But is it love or ostentation? I would have thought the garden has to be secret to be unambiguous in this. But in any case I don't see the neurology in it. The back garden is a vestige of English village life, in which the community worked together to produce major staple crops, but grew herbs and vegetables, and stabled their animals, each in a private plot called a "croft". This evolved into the garden, but preserves something of the privacy side of English village life. The front garden, visible from the bycicle, is just for show.
But what I am getting at is that there is in all the processes of nature and formal reasoning an energy derived from some mode of withdrawal. The active energy of this departure is the response of which it is opportune that underscores the incompleteness of natural law and formal reasoning. Impassive observation is a deliberate dereliction of this responsiveness that is otherwise so clearly evident in our systems of understanding, as an omission. But this doesn't mean that we can go off inventing things to supply the deficit. What it does mean is that we have a responsibility to respond to reasoned criticism, and, in the course of our going about the usual business of realizing our prejudices intentions and purposes, recognizing that there is an incmpleteness in our designs upon the world that expresses itself, not in clear or direct evidence, but in subtle vrtiations in our convictions we call emotions. These do not relate any actual data or evidence, but give us a hint that there are changes in our convictions that we are not masters of. Only divesting ourselves of that mastery do we become the agents of our own reasoning. But this means being human is intrinsic to achieving knowledge. We must invest ourselves in each other, and not simply observe. The subjective is not unreal. But if we remain impassive observers the whole point gets missed. A brain is a thing, a person is a respondent. You can't grasp the responsiveness, that is the engine of meaning, by denying it.

MJA's picture

MJA

Monday, August 22, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Surely art like beauty lies

Surely art like beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and Plato and me. And art and beauty lies in everything can't you see?  The eye, the beholder, like everything else are One or the same. The beholder is beauty too. Then why would science try to measure and separate the mind from everything else? Is it only man's folly that they lose their way?
I've posted my essay called "Art" in prior PT discussions and think (brain) esthetically I should post it again here today:
ART
      Sometimes people can define art as a beautiful painting or a drawing hung on the wall of an art gallery. Dance and music are also great expressions of art. I envisioned art a few summer days back in everything that was everywhere. This essay is about what I saw and how I got there on that very special day.
    I decided to go for a bike ride through the oldest and in my opinion the finest neighborhoods in the city, searching for the best flower garden. It was going to be a contest and I was the judge. I do not spend my weekends gardening nor have I ever judged a garden contest before. I also have never sauntered casually on my bicycle. Using it for exercise and mountainous speed ventures was the norm. It seemed a relaxing idea so out the door I went. Early in my contest I discovered a residential garden of such magnitude that it set the bar or standard that all other gardens would be judged. The garden had everything beautiful. It had color, shade, or shadow, design, and a place. It was clean and well manicured. It had meandering walks with areas for contemplation. I stopped for a while and saw the garden and its diverse vegetation as a piece or pieces of art. The rest of the day from there or then on became an art show. I saw artistic gardens and flowers everywhere. I began to smell the art, it was intoxicating. I started to see art in the design of homes too, and how the gardens were meant to complement each other. I saw it in entrance ways, stain glass windows, and staircases. There was art in the majestic tree lined streets. I eventually made it downtown to the river where everything drains including meandering bicyclists. Someone had designed the most unbelievable fountain with marble walkways and hanging baskets of flowers. I talked with a few bystanders in the art gallery I was traveling, and noticed they had art all over them. It was in their jewelry, hair style, clothes, and a smile that remains etched in my mind. I stopped in a cafe for some nourishment and also to come down a little bit. Unbelievably, the food was artistic, made by artisans in a dining room that defined decor in a unusual way. When I came back outside I looked up and saw cotton ball clouds on a turquoise canvas, oh please stop!
     I ended my trip or art show five hours later buying the best garden in the city a first place award. I see art much more often today and in many more places. Not like that special day but much more than I ever had. Art is in everything, and is made by everyone. I would like to thank all the special artists who create everything.
     PS:     Slowing down could be the key to see.           
=
 

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, August 22, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I have read, with fascination

I have read, with fascination, the accounts of Sacks, Ramachandran, et al., regarding the achievements of some whose minds were operating in altered states. It is speculative, of course, but I wonder if there is some correlation between levels of  insanity and individuals' propensities for creating works of art. Some have suggested that all artists share some degree of lunacy (I am using the term art in its broadest sense and including sculpture, drawn pieces, music of all genres, literature, etc.). The fact that people can exhibit artistic abilities from an early age; may acquire such abilities as an outcome of injury or disease; can (to some degree) learn how to create art through interest and volition; and lose artistic skills/abilities if/when "normal" cognition is regained all seems to point to brain plasticity and the ephemeral nature of the mind. All very mysterious, though, perhaps, darkly wonderful. I am continually astounded by the continuing proliferation of new sciences (or maybe just the expansion of the definitions of old ones?) It is a lot to think about... Great post, Ms. Maguire.
Neuman

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

How do we make the world see

How do we make the world see what its paradigms prevent it, and us, from seeing? One by one just spreads something like madness. But where do you go to give the world "what for!" ? I can see the attraction of drugs, but it seems a mistake to suppose they can help the process along, since, if anything, it is a matter of elevating the rigor the world is not now prepared to achieve. If it were true (which I doubt) that drugs help us see things that are more real in some sense, they most certainly do not make us more competent to introduce that elevated rigor.

 
 
 
 

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