The Promises and Pitfalls of Neuroaesthetics

"Life in the Brain" | Watercolor, Noah Hutton, 2009

On a chilly afternoon in late September, several dozen philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists and artists filed into a cavernous lecture hall at the University of Copenhagen for the first day of the first annual Copenhagen Neuroaesthetics Conference. Within a matter of minutes, Jon Lauring, a professor of psychology at the University and one of the conference’s hosts, approached a podium beneath an oversized powerpoint screen and started asking the important questions.

“What is aesthetics?”

He hesitated, expecting silence, which he received. Then he answered his own question: “Nobody can really tell you. And what are we doing here?”

With that question hovering over every presentation, side conversation, and hurried coffee break, the conference began.

The first two days of the conference passed with alternating moments of brilliant insight and awkward convergences. On the brilliant side, artists approaching neuroscientific work called attention to the pitfalls in rushing to empiricism when the subject—an oil painting, a piece of music—is itself so deeply subjective, and thus called upon these scientists to reframe their guiding questions. This seems to be the best hope for such a conference: to question, reframe, inspire, and send its participants home with a rejuvenation of spirit—artists having discovered the wonders of recent findings about the brain and scientists made more aware of the complex processes involved in artistic creation and observation.

But for each warm and fuzzy moment, there were the inevitable shortcomings where the empire of brain science, the enchanted land of aesthetics, and the private club of the artists seemed like comet-riding factions whipping through a solar system temporarily centered around the Protostar of Copenhagen. Talks butted up against one another in their uses of brain science, varying greatly in the depths to which researchers are deciding to involve the hard neuroscientific data in their classical aesthetics research. Thomas Jacobsen, author of Bridging the Arts and Sciences: A Framework for the Psychology of Aesthetics, began his slideshow with a pie-chart: seven approaches, represented as seven slices, surrounded the words at heart of the pie: the psychology of aesthetics. This chart was perhaps the most useful visualization of the challenges faced by these pioneering researchers—it was a humbling reminder that we need to be aware of the variety of factors involved in viewing art, from the viewing situation to our own experience to collective histories, when we evaluate the psychology and eventually the neuroscience of creating and observing art.

Jacobsen, like many other presenters at the conference, seemed to both acknowledge the lack of empirical, explanatory power in many of the current approaches to neuroaesthetics but to also relish in the opportunity to stick their test subjects in an fMRI machine and display some slides, usually near the end of the presentation, with colorful images of activation in certain areas of their brains while observing art. Rarely did these slides add any explanatory power to the arguments at hand. At its best, the display of fMRI results would affirm for the neuroscientist some basic facts about visual perception: activation in object-memory regions, reward pathways, perhaps increased activity in spatial orientation areas depending on the work at hand. Though it is important to start somewhere with the integration of neuroscience into these classical lines of aesthetics research (and it is a thrill to see any integration at all of the hard neuroscience) the danger is in having the work get stuck in a sort of Enlightenment-era botany when the scientific tools are becoming available to move beyond the romantic naming of parts and the pointing at colorful fMRI displays of bloodflow through the brain. Soon we will move beyond the fascination that the brain is activated when we think, see or do anything at all, and begin to unify the vast fields of hard neuroscientific data and tools for studying the brain in the process of trying to answer the basic and beautiful questions of subjectivity and consciousness.

So in the Einsteinian quest to unify and explain basic and fundamental truths of natural phenomena, where can this cobbled-together field of neuroaesthetics point us? Since the Enlightenment, which sowed the seeds of so much informational evolution in the past centuries, we have grown increasingly specific in each discipline of information—so much so that it is as if we have been building massive telescopes to penetrate academic fields, and in building these telescopes, year after year, department after department, we have risked losing sight of the galaxies and ultimately the universe that these fields all inhabit and describe.  In all of our telescoping fervor there has been something essential gone missing, a unifying gaze that so many disciplines, be it physics, aesthetics, or neuroscience, now crave. The great Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson calls this outlook on the sciences and humanities “Consilience,” and calls for a return to the unification of knowledge that great thinkers such as Leonardo wielded for the true advancement of his species. In the brain sciences of the modern day, art and all the offerings of the non-empirical humanities are too often seen as a sort of icing on the hardened cake of cellular and physiological data—a pleasant behavioral result of the gears that move neural networks, ion channels, synapses—the gears the sciences have been and continue to be the most equipped human endeavor to unveil. But in this ever-magnified and ever-intensified unveiling of the gears within, what do we risk as a species, as humans, as the progenitors of symbolic cultures that we deem the highest achievements of us animals, when we refuse to consider the role the humanities could plan in science, and the role of science in the humanities?

If we do not pursue unification, both the sciences and the humanities will be threatened by our narrow-mindedness. The humanities will cease to be relevant in the wake of so many breakthroughs in our laboratory understanding of the brain, consciousness, and the universe; the sciences will become even dryer and more sterile to the generations of thinkers to follow, unable to inspire the creativity needed for major breakthroughs and rendered even more inaccessible than they already are to the curious artist. Science will undoubtedly persist in its unveiling of the brain—and we should do nothing to stop what is already well underway. But we can do more both as artists and as scientists. The possibilities brought on by unification are grand—they can mirror the explosion of art and science seen in the early 20th century when Einstein’s Theory of Relativity paralleled the beginnings of modernist movements. They can hark back to the days of the great Renaissance masters, when art and science achieved a mutually informative symbiosis in a single thinker’s work. But they can go further and explore new terrain unique to the 21st century—the wild, beautiful jungle of the human mind, and the creativity that will be required for the next generation of thinkers to understand and harness the power of the most complex piece of matter in the known universe.

Yet calls for this sort  of unification can seem vague and grandiose. The essential questions linger: How could art and science ever be truly mutually informative? What positive results would ever come out of promoting the dialogue between the two, and do they not seek to accomplish essentially different tasks?

There are several levels of the art-science dialogue. One of the most obvious dialogues exists in the use of metaphor in explaining dense scientific concepts: often it is with a simple visualization of a mechanism in familiar terms, the construction of a new model to present the hard data, that the “aha!” moment arrives and new questions can be formed, leading to new lines of research, or simply the translation of science-speak into layman’s terms. The analogy is one of the artist’s greatest tools, one of humanity’s original tools, and a vehicle for some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of all time.

There is also the ever-growing bank of scientific knowledge that can be drawn upon for artistic inspiration. There are many contemporary examples of brilliant cross-pollination, and even an academic journal to document such work (The aptly named Leonardo, published by The MIT Press, which seeks to foster an “international channel of communication for artists who use science and developing technologies in their work”). In the case of neuroscience, the brain’s beauty and attractiveness to the arts rests less in its meaty, folded, three-pound external form but rather in the vastly complex ways in which its universe of electrochemical activity orchestrates the great emotions, ideas, and ultimately artistic output we hold in the highest regard.

The arts can provide new models—sorely needed by the neurosciences—to visualize, interpret, and study this highly complex inner world. These models and interpretations can surely aid in empirical research. But the crucial interaction between art and science can be in the education and inspiration of a new generation of scientific humanists, whose creativity will be needed to answer some of our deepest and toughest questions. There is no loss of awe and wonder by squaring the subjective in the cellular—there is just the realization that for a great source of inspiration, medical progress, and answers to some of our deepest questions of existence, the 21st century will turn the telescope back at the space between our ears.

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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  • Have you seen Jean Bergeron’s film on M.C. Escher, Achieving the Unachievable? The documentary overlaps your fascination with neuroaesthetics. To quote from my mini-review of the 2007 doc: “Bergeron opens a dialogue on the relationship between art and math and the mystery of creative intuition…while unravelling one of art’s great enigmas: the hole at the centre of Escher’s incomplete work Print Gallery, which has remained a mystery for half a century. Several decades ago, polymath Douglas R.Hofstadter predicted that the centre of Escher’s work would be forever void. Dutch math professor Hendrik W. Lenstra leads a team trying to fill in the tantalizingly incomplete whorl. While Lenstra turns the print over and over, studying its distinctive spiral grid for the key that will unlock the mystery, Bergeron turns to other creative and math experts to test his theory ‘that the artistic and the scientific minds might be two sides of the same coin.’”

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