Thursday 25 December 2014


[This is a throwback post from my old, failed attempt a blog: Rationalist Cinema Meme Catapult.]

Neuroaesthetics is a new and still somewhat controversial approach to unraveling the mysteriousness of art. It uses neuroscience to understand the physical process of making aesthetic judgements. It is closely related to neuromarketing, which uses brain science to identify mass preferences and predict mass consumer behaviour.

The goal of neuroaesthetics is to replace our half-formed understanding of the relationship between a stimulus and the psychology it provokes with an understanding of the relationship between psychology and the physiological properties of the brain. Some early progress has been made.
The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is host to an interplay of various classes of emotions. For example, the medial OFC has been shown to play a role in making aesthetic judgments when subjects are asked to express their reaction to paintings as either "beautiful," "neutral," or "ugly." But there is much more to experiencing art than "good-neutral-bad."

Neuroaesthetics is offensive to some traditional aestheticians and art historians because it is reductive. I doubt most fans of art, for instance, would appreciate VS Ramachandran's list of 10 universal laws of art:
  1. Peak shift
  2. Grouping
  3. Contrast
  4. Isolation
  5. Perception problem solving
  6. Symmetry
  7. Abhorrence of coincidence/generic viewpoint
  8. Repetition, rhythm, and orderliness
  9. Balance
  10. Metaphor

Art culture is not fond of universal laws. Ramachandran's list looks like the start of a rulebook for calling some art good and other art bad. But we know that art is very difficult to explain or justify in quantitative terms and that attempts to do so are almost universally disliked.

For example, there are different kinds of viewing and one would expect them to involve different neural processes. One study draws such a distinction between "objective and detached" viewing and "subjective and engaged" viewing. There are also a million offer factors that affect an aesthetic judgment.

Brown and Dissayanake offer three serious criticisms of neuroaesthetics:
  1. Neuroaesthetics is based on a class of emotions that applies to much more than just art.
  2. Art appreciation and production use more than just aesthetic emotions.
  3. The basic emotion theory (BET) first proposed by Darwin is oversimple.

They also bring up that a neuroscientific theory of art must be able to account for all kinds of art, not just Eurocentric visual art, which is what the pioneers of the field such as Zeki and Ramachandran have focused on.

I think their second criticism needs to be taken most seriously. Art is a complex experience that involves many factors: self-awareness, mood, environment, cultural context, body positioning - almost too many elements to count. Aesthetic judgements alone seem to tell us very little about how people actually engage with works of art. After all, there could be - and I think there are - clashes between what's most aesthetically pleasing and what's most valuable or praiseworthy.

Brown and Dissayanake take 
Clore & Ortony's three-part categorization of kinds of emotions and add a fourth group:
  1. Outcomes: Emotions involved in the consequences of actions, often goal-motivated
  2. Objects: Emotions involved in responses to objects (e.g. aesthetic emotions)
  3. Agency: Emotions involved in making moral judgements of people
  4. Social interactions: Emotions involved in self- and situation-conscious social interactions

This alternate approach to understanding emotions is less simplistic and doesn't reduce art to aesthetics.

Useful as neurological experiments may be as the first building blocks of a one-day fully developed understanding of the inner psychophysics of appreciating art, the correlations drawn in neuroaesthetic experiments to date are the equivalent of taking a snapshot of the view outside your window and showing it to your friend, saying: "Look at this map I made of North America."

That Ramachandran predicts a galvanic skin response will be activated by a particular technique (multiple viewpoints of faces) used by a particular group of artists (Cubists) from a particular culture (European) using a particular medium (painting) seems to tell us almost nothing about how people actually engage with art.

This is why Brown and Dissayanake propose that neuroaesthetics be replaced with "neuroartsology," a field that tries to account for all the varied neurological processes involved in the viewing of art, rather than merely aesthetic judgements.

For the most part, neuroaestheticians are aware of the shortcomings of their findings and their limitations in describing art. But their field is a legitimate one - after all, there is nothing theoretically impossible about an inner psychophysics of aesthetics (or artsology) - and their experiments bring us a tiny step closer to an understanding of aesthetics that surpasses what we can do with rationality and intuition.

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