Humans actively seek to create and consume art.
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.