The Cognitive Science of Art: Goals and Motivations of Neuroaesthetics

[First posted on 1/20/05 at the old blog]

With all the controversy surrounding the issues in my last few posts, I thought it would be refreshing to talk about something completely uncontroversial: the existence of universals in art based on neurological mechanisms. (That was a joke, people). I've been doing some research on the cognitive science of art and aesthetics for my own work, and have wanted to post on it for a while, but there's a lot to talk about, and I haven't really been able to develop a plan for how to discuss it in this forum. So, I've decided to do what I usually do with blog posts -- wing it. I figure I should start by describing what researchers in this area hope to accomplish. After that, I can get into specific theories and research. Hopefully, by the end (which will probably be a few posts down the line), people who know much more about aesthetics from a philosophical or art criticism perspective will be feel compelled to comment (which is not to say they should wait until the end).

The best place to start when describing the goals of a research program is with the statements of the researchers themselves. V.S. Ramachndran, whose work on art and neuroscience has sparked a great deal of interest and controversy, put it this way1:

If a Martian ethologist were to land on earth and watch us humans, he would be puzzled by many aspects of human nature, but surely art--our propensity to create and enjoy paintings and sculpture--would be among the most puzzling. What biological function could this mysterious behaviour possible serve? Cultural factors undoubtedly influence what kind of art a person enjoys -- be it a Rembrandt, a Monet, a Rodin, a Picasso, a Chola bronze, a Moghul miniature, or a Ming Dynasty vase. But, even if beauty is largely in the eye of the beholder, might there be some sort of universal rule or 'deep structure', underlying all artistic experience? The details may vary from culture to culture and may be influenced by the way one is raised, but it doesn't follow that there is no genetically specified mechanism -- a common denominator underlying all types of art. (p. 16)

The search for universals in art is by no means a new one, but Ramachandran and others (most notably Semi Zeki) have resolved to do so by understanding the neurological mechanisms that all (or most) art utilizes. Zeki writes2:

What is art? What constitutes great art? Why do we value art so much and why has it been such a conspicuous feature of all human societies? These questions have been discussed at length though without satisfactory resolution. This is not surprising. Such discussions are usually held without reference to the brain, through which all art is conceived, executed and appreciated. Art has a biological basis. It is a human activity and, like all human activities, including morality, law and religion, depends upon, and obeys, the laws of the brain. (p. 53)

If art, both in its creation and appreciation, is a product of brains, then it stands to reason that we may gain valuable insight into the nature of art by understanding how it acts on our brains. Specifically, we may be able to utilize our knowledge of the workings of the visual system, and its connections to emotional centers of the brain, to understand why certain themes, forms, and schemes can be found in art across cultures, and why some works of art are more aesthetically pleasing than others. In order to do this, Ramachandran, Zeki, and others have developed several hypotheses designed to produce testable predictions (often counterintuitive) about the role of the visual system in the production and appreciation of art.

This project differs, markedly, from traditional approaches to art, in which art is treated as amorphous, or ineffable; a product of irreducible subjective and cultural phenomena. Thus traditional aesthetic theories are untestable by their very nature. The hope of neuroscientists is not that art will be completely explainable from neurological principles alone. On the contrary, these neurological principles are meant to be foundations onto which the more subjective and culturally relative aspects of art are built. Even if the insights that we can gain from neuroscience constitute only a fraction of what art is (Ramachandran often uses 10% as a figure for the portion of art that he is attempting to explain0, then we will have accomplished something. We may then be better able to understand the development and utilization of subjective and cultural standards in art.

For example, if there are universals in art that are products of our neural composition, then this approach may allow us to solve some of the problems that philosophers and aesthetic theorists have puzzled over for centuries. Consider the problem of beauty typified in Kant's antinomy of the non-conceptual aspect of aesthetic judgement and the conceptual nature of taste. With reference to the work of Ramachandran and his colleagues, Jennifer McMahon writes3:

[Ramachandran & Hirstein's principles] would represent or explain the relation between certain properties of the beautiful object and the viewer's pleasure, in such a way that would ground judgments of beauty and also explain why beauty is ineffable. After all, it is the way perceptual principles are employed in the course of perceiving the beautiful object that causes the pleasure. We cannot subsume these principles under a concept as we can the incoming data which give rise to logical condition-governed concepts, because these principles are a part of the architecture of the mind; hence, beauty's ineffability. (p. 31)

If nothing else, a scientific approach to aesthetics should spark debate, about the essence of art, beauty, and human nature. Hopefully, the prospects of such a project are enough to whet some of your appetites. In the next post, I'll discuss at length (probably too much length) Ramachandran's 8 (sometimes 10) universal principles of art. After that, I'll get into the issue of beauty more specifically, and finally, I may talk a little about non-visual art, and literary arts in particular.

1 Ramachandran, V.S., & Hirstein, W. (1999). The science of art: A neurological theory of aesthetic experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1, 15-35.
2 Zeki, S. (2002). Neural concept formation and art: Dante, Michelangelo, Wagner. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9, 53-76.
3 McMahon, J.A. (2000). Perceptual principles as the basis for genuine judgements of beauty. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7(8-9), 29-35.

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By T.S. Eliot (not verified) on 15 Sep 2006 #permalink