Theory in Studio: Neuroesthetics

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Image courtesy helpingpsychology.com.

In the last two decades scientific knowledge of the brain has grown to unprecedented heights. This has to do, in part, with the happy convergence of advances in neurology, genetics, and new imaging technology. Now researchers have at their disposal a completely mapped human genome and an evolutionary theory of the brain, which gives an historical perspective to brain development. Parallel to this has been the invention of ever better fMRI machines, which can scan a living brain and represent its activity in close to real time. Combined, these two advances give us impressive macro and micro information about the brain. This type of work is relatively new and the implications of contemporary neurobiology have yet to fully work themselves out; yet, starting at the end of the 90s a small cluster of researchers in the U.S. and U.K. saw potential implications for neurobiology in the study of art. Quickly this work was dubbed neuroesthetics or neuroaesthetics. Neuroesthetics is a young and diffuse body of scholarship but it anticipates a totally new way of thinking about the biological foundations of art. How future artists, critics, and art historians take up these findings is another matter, but they suggest a body of knowledge that is worth exploring further.
A Closer Look at an Old Question
Image courtesy med.harvard.edu.

It is nothing new to suggest that a proper understanding of art is tied to science. The very term aesthetic has its origin in an attempt to understand art as an empirical phenomenon. The eighteenth-century German natural scientist and philosopher Alexander Baumgarten created ‘aesthetics’ as its own field of study. For him it meant a science of taste derived from scrutinizing sensory observation. At the core of this was the idea that our receptivity to art is fundamentally tied to our physical body and how our sense organs gather information. Hence, to understand art requires an understanding of empirical nature.
After Darwin this idea required some revision. Philosophers like John Dewey began to wonder if the human species had evolved into an art-making entity, such that an understanding of art was to be found in our biology rather than in a gallery. Neuroesthetics takes up these questions and anticipates finding evidence about which part of the brain processes different aspects of an aesthetic experience. Coupled with genetics it could reveal which part of our genetic code impacts these specific parts of the brain. The question concerning a biological basis for art has not fundamentally changed since the eighteenth century, but the degree of detail to which we can investigate this idea has improved dramatically.
Neuroesthetics itself began as an investigation into the vision centers of the brain, and thus a great deal of early neurobiology examined vision. This was partly due to the fact that the visual cortex and the eyes represent a large portion of the brain, making it relatively easier to observe. It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that a significant connection was proposed between this early work on vision and the visual arts—a move that was made and popularized by the British neurologist Semir Zeki, who remains a prominent figure in neuroesthetics, heading the Institute of Neuroesthetics at University College London. This initial interest in vision accounts for a general bias in neuroesthetics, which focuses more on the visual, as opposed to the musical or literary. While one can find research in neuromusicology and neuropoetics today, there is significantly less than visual neuroesthetics. For anyone interested in reading more on this burgeoning science it is advisable to start with Zeki’s engaging and accessible books.
One of Zeki’s most provocative claims, clearly expressed in his 1999 book Inner Vision, is that artists and painters in particular are functionally neurologists. He writes of painters that they “are those who have experimented upon and, without ever realizing it, understood something about the visual brain.” His conviction is that the method of making a painting, whereby the artist adds and subtracts paint until the canvas reaches a satisfying state, is akin to working toward a point that he or she thinks will be pleasing to other observers. This is similar to the way in which neurologists propose general rules of cognitive perception in the lab. This may sound uncritically like the claims of abstract expressionists who wanted to achieve universal formal purity in their painting, but it also suggests, more modestly, that art does tell us about the brain and vice versa. It is this dynamic, the connection between the brain and taste in art, that seems to be one of the most fruitful questions posed by neuroesthetics, but one that by no means is close to being answered.
Cover of Semir Zeki's Inner Vision. Image courtesy amazon.com.

Limits and the Future
A polite, but fundamental debate amongst scholars in this field regards the priority of art over neurology in the study of neuroesthetics. Some advocate for science before art. A prominent scientist in the field, J.P. Changeux, published an important early article entitled “Art and Neuroscience”(1994), in which he suggests that research focused on art can have broad sweeping benefits for neurology. Aesthetic experience incorporates many parts of the brain and an understanding of their coordination in response to art will tell us much about the brain as a whole. While, this view of neuroesthetics focuses on understanding the brain better, as opposed to art, the field has received attention from outside of neuroscience: scholars from the humanities, for example, have been emphasizing the opposite position, namely, that neuroesthetics is a means to better understanding art. Such are the positions of artists Warren Neidich, who wrote Blow-Up: Photography, Cinema and the Brain in 2002 and art historian John Onians, author of Neuroarthistory from 2007.
It would be incorrect to say that any of these individuals are dogmatically committed to one side or the other. Much of the research is still too new to make definitive statements about either art or the brain; yet, these divergent temperaments have emerged in the extant literature. My sense is that these positions will gradually converge. The first position, which privileges neurology, is the more conservative. It steps on no toes in the art world and it makes no special assumptions about how to interpret art works. While this relative neutrality was characteristic of the early decade of neuroesthetics in the 1990s, as the field ages and gains further insight, scientists may become more willing to ask themselves about the artistic applications of this data. Meanwhile, arts professionals will increasingly want to weigh-in, pushing practitioners of neuroesthetics to speculate about art. This will undoubtedly be a lengthy process as normative ideas are proposed and then tempered by experimental findings, but an exciting process nonetheless for anyone concerned with the arts.


Alex Robins is a PhD student in philosophy at Emory University. His research examines the history of aesthetics with a focus on American theories of art.
Theory in Studio is a series dedicated to highlighting philosophic terms, trends, and figures and showing their relevance to contemporary art. By providing context, the series seeks to demystify theory and introduce ideas that might help inspire future studio practice.