This Is Your Brain on Art

Sunday, May 19, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, August 21, 2016

What is it

Humans actively seek to create and consume art. Its compelling nature has been discussed in the humanities since its inception, and the philosophical branch of aesthetics has long investigated its fundamental questions: What is beauty? What is art? What is good taste? Now researchers are applying the tools of neuroscience in an attempt to find answers to these questions. But can the scientific method truly be applied to the study of art? Can brain scans help address the questions of aesthetics, or is the matter simply too abstract? John and Ken get artsy with Gabrielle Starr from NYU, author of Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience.

Listening Notes

Ken starts of this weeks show with a big word: Neuroaesthetics—a fancy of way of saying what happens to your brain when it is on art. The field of neuroaesthetics combines the cutting edge of neuroscience—fMRI and brain scans—with philosophical ideas on aesthetics investigate in order to investigate how people experience with art. While Ken is excited to dive in, John starts off a bit skeptical: as he asks Ken, what do neurons firing tell us about the nature of beauty, or artistic talent? Ken agrees that brain waves may not have a lot to say about the value of art, but he thinks neuroaesthetics has a lot to tell us about the way humans experience art and maybe unlock the secrets of creative ability.

After an interesting interlude for Shuka Kalantari’s Roving Philosophical Report, John and Ken welcome Gabrielle Starr, a professor of English at New York University. After talking about how Professor Starr moved from English literature to neuroscience, the three dive into a discussion of neuroaesthetics. John asks her, one humanist to another, to explain how neuroscience could shed light on subjective aesthetic experience. Professor Starr argues to the hosts how all subjective experience is embodied: it is mediated by the way our bodies—and brains—work.

The three take a short break, and, on returning, Professor Starr talks about what brain systems are involved in experiencing art. Interestingly, there is one brain system—the default mode network—that is only involved in intense aesthetic experience. During daily pleasures or other experiences, the network is silent: but when a person experiences something aesthetically captivating—a painter’s masterpiece, or a magnificent opera—the default mode network switches on. It seems that the default mode network is involved in introspection, envisioning the future and the past, and imagining other people and their feelings. The three talk about what this might tell us about what experiencing great art feels like.

The professors then move on to what makes individual people experience different works of art in different ways. They asks questions about what role culture plays in distinct experiences, and how much a person’s brain make-up affects their experience of art, be it a painting or a poem. The three then take questions from the radio audience. One guest calls in and asks about the difference between taste and appreciation: he says that he can appreciate a great work of art even if does not appeal to him personally. Can neuroaesthetics explain these contrasting evaluations of art?  Professor Starr talks about how there can be a more cognitive experience of art—when one appreciates an artwork as something important or relevant—but also a more personal or emotional experience of art, when one finds it gripping and powerful. The three talk about what that distinction is in the brain, and how we can interpret it philosophically.

Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 7:15): Shuka Kalantari asks adults (and kids) their thoughts on abstract painter Jackson Pollock’s drip painting Full Fathom Five (1947). She compares their takes to the opinions of expert art critics.

60-Second Philosopher (seek to 45:50): Ian Shoales dives into the history of art—yes, the entire history—in his sixty-second segment. He talks about art’s in early religion and worship, up through the French Academy (which told the world “what art was”), all the way to Dada and modern art. 


G. Gabrielle Starr, Dean of the College of Arts and Science, New York University


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