A philosopher wrote a blog post on the New York Times’ website, and I don’t agree with him. I started this website–The Beautiful Brain– two years ago with the intent to explore the very pursuits this philosopher deems misguided, so I’ve written the following to keep track of my differences of opinion, and to provide an alternate point of view for anyone interested.
In an essay published in the New York Times’ Opinionator blogs section, philosopher Alva Noë (author of the 2009 book Out of Our Heads) takes aim at the kingdom of present-day neuroscience by directing his attacks at one of this kingdom’s most speculative and remote outposts: Neuroaesthetics. The following is my paragraph-by-paragraph response to Noë’s essay. The essay can be read first in its entirety here.
Art and the Limits of Neuroscience
By ALVA NOË
What is art? What does art reveal about human nature? The trend these days is to approach such questions in the key of neuroscience.
Noë’s first-down play call is an immediate flag for me. The trend these days? Just a major trend, generally, out in society, these days? This opening generalization blows up a balloon Noë will set out to deflate. But the balloon is filled with unfounded air.
Yes, some approach the mega-question “What is art?” in the key of neuroscience. But I’d imagine even those people who do occasionally set forth speculative, neuroscience-infused ideas about why we create art and what it reveals about human nature would acknowledge that neuroscience is still, today, just one way among very many ways to talk about art– that art historical discussion is still a major “trend,” not yet offset by the trend (in Noë’s formulation) of looking at it through the lens of neuroscience.
For example, the entry wall text at the Guggenheim’s current Cattelan show in New York City makes some big statements about the role of art in our world, but none of which are injected with an ounce of current neuroscience. This is because– even for those interested in the neuroscience of art– neuroscience is, for now, but one key still buried in a thick book of musical theory about how to approach the meaning of art– and when it comes to someone as embedded in the politics and culture of his time as Cattelan, there would be no sense yet in incorporating the neuroscience we have at our disposal in 2011 to display in this wall text for the general public visiting the show. Thousands will see the Cattelan show at the Guggenheim. None will read about any neuroscience there, and for good reason.
Noë is doing some overly negative poking at a young and humbly speculative field. This field is eager to test out new tools and put forth some bold ideas in journals and specialty books, all backed by empirical studies. But it is a field which is not claiming full explanation or revelation, not claiming it’s ready to replace the art historical wall text at the Guggenheim with a few paragraphs on edge detection, peak shift, color opposition, and association cortex. This is not the trend. Rather, this is someone you’d want to invite to dinner because the wide-ranging conversation about the perception of art could suffer from being a bit outdated and run-of-the-mill for 2011 if they aren’t there.
“Neuroaesthetics” is a term that has been coined to refer to the project of studying art using the methods of neuroscience. It would be fair to say that neuroaesthetics has become a hot field. It is not unusual for leading scientists and distinguished theorists of art to collaborate on papers that find their way into top scientific journals.
I’ll step aside here and let the conclusions of one of the papers Noë links to in this section speak for itself. From Zeki and Lamb, 1994 (Perhaps this neuroscience-of-art trend is a little less recent than Noë led us to believe with his above “these days..” formulation), after pages of inspired work:
In the last few pages, we have tried to use kinetic art and its development as a means of illustrating our general point that, in creating his art, the artist unknowingly undertakes an experiment in which he studies the organization of the visual brain. We have tried to analyse kinetic art in terms of the known neurology of the brain in general and of the pathways subserving visual motion in particular. We have shown that area V5 must be critical for kinetic art. We have therefore also shown that it is possible to relate the experience of kinetic art to the healthy activation of small parts of the brain. We do not mean to imply that the resulting aesthetic experience is due solely to the activity of V5 but only that V5 is necessary for it. It is perhaps a measure of how far we have come along in visual physiology that we can do so and can also begin to enquire into the relationship between physiology and visual art. It goes without saying that there is much in kinetic art which we have left unexplored, even at this level, and there is much at a higher level which we are not even competent to explore. The relationship of brain organization to aesthetics, the symbolism inherent not only in kinetic art, but in all art, the relationship of art to sexual impulses — these are all subjects which are worthy of study, though in a millennial future when we have learned a great deal more about the brain. In other ways, however, the millennial future which poets and artists have dreamed about is already here and, however small our contribution, it is satisfying to us to try to formulate the beginnings of an understanding of the relationship between the organization of the brain and its manifestation in art. [full paper]
Does any of the above warrant attack for overreaching or presupposing? To me, this is a humble but exciting new voice in the conversation, not the end-all answer-man shouting over everyone in the room. Personally, I’d like to hear more in years to come. Noë, it appears, would not like to hear much more. He goes on to speak directly about Zeki, the author of the above passage:
Semir Zeki, a neuroscientist at University College London, likes to say that art is governed by the laws of the brain. It is brains, he says, that see art and it is brains that make art. Champions of the new brain-based approach to art sometimes think of themselves as fighting a battle with scholars in the humanities who may lack the courage (in the words of the art historian John Onians) to acknowledge the ways in which biology constrains cultural activity. Strikingly, it hasn’t been much of a battle. Students of culture, like so many of us, seem all too glad to join in the general enthusiasm for neural approaches to just about everything.
I interviewed John Onians in 2009 after I attended a neuroaesthetics conference in Copenhagen. You can listen to our talk in a podcast here– the interview gets underway just after 8 minutes in. (please excuse the production value, it was the first episode!). Here’s an excerpt from about 11:50 in to give you a sense of how different this John Onians (quoted directly) was than the Onians which Noë refers to (without specific quotes) above:
Me: What can the findings of neuroscience– the hard cellular data, the brain scans– what can that add, or further, in our understanding of art and art history?
John Onians: The more I learned about neuroscience the more I discovered that there were some areas of knowledge that were particularly helpful to art historians… But it is certainly true that there is not a large body of data which can be presented as a single, coherent framework. I think it’s quite helpful for scientists if people in the humanities come into this area. Because in the humanities, we can use the material in the way we use all the other knowledge and theoretical frameworks in the humanities. We’re not making scientific claims about our work. We’re saying, “I have a hunch about how this may help me.”
I’m not sure where Noë is looking, but when I talked to Onians, I got the sense that neuroscience is a new tool that he is encouraging those in the humanities to add to their toolkit, not as a field that is “fighting a battle” with the humanities. Noë is actually being more divisive here than the chief example he uses to further his argument has ever been.
What is striking about neuroaesthetics is not so much the fact that it has failed to produce interesting or surprising results about art, but rather the fact that no one — not the scientists, and not the artists and art historians — seem to have minded, or even noticed. What stands in the way of success in this new field is, first, the fact that neuroscience has yet to frame anything like an adequate biological or “naturalistic” account of human experience — of thought, perception, or consciousness.
This is an outrageous claim. Neuroscience is young, and we actually do have some absolutely astounding accounts of human experience from the thousands of brain scientists who have carried out steady, empirical work over the decades (check out John Kubie in the comments section of Noë’s piece for a nice response from a member of the scientific community).
Take the biology that gives an account for the very real experience of our visual blind spot, for one small example. And if we’re talking about the neuroscience of art, are you going to tell me that the underlying neuroscience of color and luminance as applied to the study of Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” is of no interest?
And that no one has noticed? A section on these neuroscientific insights appears on the Wikipedia entry for Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” painting, where they take up almost as much space as the “History” section.
The idea that a person is a functioning assembly of brain cells and associated molecules is not something neuroscience has discovered. It is, rather, something it takes for granted. You are your brain. Francis Crick once called this “the astonishing hypothesis,” because, as he claimed, it is so remote from the way most people alive today think about themselves. But what is really astonishing about this supposedly astonishing hypothesis is how astonishing it is not! The idea that there is a thing inside us that thinks and feels — and that we are that thing — is an old one. Descartes thought that the thinking thing inside had to be immaterial; he couldn’t conceive how flesh could perform the job. Scientists today suppose that it is the brain that is the thing inside us that thinks and feels. But the basic idea is the same. And this is not an idle point. However surprising it may seem, the fact is we don’t actually have a better understanding how the brain might produce consciousness than Descartes did of how the immaterial soul would accomplish this feat; after all, at the present time we lack even the rudimentary outlines of a neural theory of consciousness.
False. The insight that the brain operates similarly to a computer put us light years ahead of Descartes in terms of understanding how the brain might produce consciousness. We still have a LONG way to go, but certainly theories like Daniel Dennett’s “multiple drafts” or Benard Baars’ “global workspace” are more on target than Descartes’ ghost in the machine.
Noë is severely undervaluing the work of a lot of important thinkers since Descartes. Continuing:
What we do know is that a healthy brain is necessary for normal mental life, and indeed, for any life at all. But of course much else is necessary for mental life. We need roughly normal bodies and a roughly normal environment. We also need the presence and availability of other people if we are to have anything like the sorts of lives that we know and value. So we really ought to say that it is the normally embodied, environmentally- and socially-situated human animal that thinks, feels, decides and is conscious. But once we say this, it would be simpler, and more accurate, to allow that it is people, not their brains, who think and feel and decide. It is people, not their brains, that make and enjoy art. You are not your brain, you are a living human being.
I re-read this section several times to try to figure out Noë’s deductive steps. In the meantime, here’s Dave the commenter again, with more valid criticisms:
Let me see if I can understand the authors’ argument. It seems to go something like this:
1) We need a healthy body, a normal environment, and social contact in order to be mentally healthy (that is, in order to not have a mental illness).
2) Therefore, we need a healthy body, a normal environment, and social contact in order to be CONSCIOUS.
It should be apparent that the leap from 1 to 2 is just plain silly. Mental health does not equal consciousness. If it did, we would have to say that people suffering from depression or schizophrenia do not have conscious experiences, or that moving to a deserted island would make your consciousness disappear.
The author seems to think that because the brain interacts with its environment, consciousness must therefore take place in the environment instead of in the brain. Perhaps I’m missing something, but this just seems loopy.
The statement “It is people, not their brains, that make and enjoy art” sounds like the denial stage of grieving over the decades-in-the-making entry of modern neuroscience into the discussion of art objects.
Moreover, it’s like saying, “It is people, not their stomachs, that process food.” Remove the stomach and try to process food. Remove the brain and try to make and enjoy art. But remove a finger or three, a limb or two, even another internal organ or more, pluck us away at a young age and put us in a remote territory, and we’re still making and enjoying art, thanks to our intact brains. I can’t go along with Noë’s argument here, just as I couldn’t believe in a lot of his arguments in Out of Our Heads. He rightly points out the need for integrative neuroscience, yet doesn’t take us anywhere new. As the Scientific American MIND review of his book noted, “The problem is that where Noë clears away stale ideas, he offers little of substance to replace them. One comes away from the book without a definitive example of a conscious state that would require more than a brain.”
Noë then offers more towards the above claim:
We need finally to break with the dogma that you are something inside of you — whether we think of this as the brain or an immaterial soul — and we need finally take seriously the possibility that the conscious mind is achieved by persons and other animals thanks to their dynamic exchange with the world around them (a dynamic exchange that no doubt depends on the brain, among other things). Importantly, to break with the Cartesian dogmas of contemporary neuroscience would not be to cave in and give up on a commitment to understanding ourselves as natural. It would be rather to rethink what a biologically adequate conception of our nature would be.
At their best, Noë’s ideas remind us that the brain is an embodied organ; that the nervous system extends to all the far reaches of the body; that the brain is shaped through learning, which takes place in a dynamic environment where we interact with others. But this interaction in the environment leads to neuronal reorganization at every step of the way inside our heads.
At their worst, as in the above passage, Noë’s ideas start to sound like a vague “everything is connected” New Age agenda. It’s provocative to ask the reader to consider a “break” with deep-seated understandings of contemporary neuroscience– but in the end, there are no alternatives to be found here. We’d do better to turn back to the heavy-hitters: Dennett, Damasio, Edelstein, and countless others who prefer to explore the mind as it is achieved by what rests between our two ears.
But there is a second obstacle to progress in neuroaesthetics. Neural approaches to art have not yet been able to find a way to bring art into focus in the laboratory. As mentioned, theorists in this field like to say that art is constrained by the laws of the brain. But in practice what this is usually taken to come down to is the humble fact that the brain constrains the experience of art because it constrains all experience. Visual artists, for example, don’t work with ultraviolet light, as Zeki reminds us, because we can’t see ultraviolet light. They do work with shape and form and color because we can see them.
Now it is doubtless correct that visual artists confine themselves to materials and effects that are, well, visible. And likewise, it seems right that our perception of works of art, like our perception of anything, depends on the nature of our perceptual capacities, capacities which, in their turn, are constrained by the brain.
But there is a problem with this: An account of how the brain constrains our ability to perceive has no greater claim to being an account of our ability to perceive art than it has to being an account of how we perceive sports, or how we perceive the man across from us on the subway. In works about neuroaesthetics, art is discussed in the prefaces and touted on the book jackets, but never really manages to show up in the body of the works themselves!
What works has Noë been reading? Not Margaret Livingstone’s, whose Vision and Art is bursting with… art, including the Monet example given above. Apparently not much of Zeki either, who consistently deals with real art in the body of his works, including the very paper that Noë links to.
And what theorists like to say that art is “constrained” by the laws of the brain, a supposition that Noë keeps returning to in this essay? That’s like saying that sports are constrained by the laws of physics. In fact, it’s the laws of physics that give rise to every physical aspect of sports– the outcomes, the boundaries, even the miracles. There is something dissonant about Noë’s conception of cause-and-effect when it comes to art and the brain. Writing, as Noë does above, that the “brain constrains our ability to perceive” seems to suggest that we first have an ability to perceive, and then the brain comes along, and somehow constrains perception. Explain to me the cause and effect in this model of perception– it’s nonsensical.
Again, neuroscience is young. If we know anything about visual perception, it’s that it happens in stages in the brain, and in anatomically distinct regions that are responsible for different parts of the process. Some of the most compelling findings in perceptual neuroscience only have to do with the early stages of processing: lines, color, motion, coherence, object recognition. There are as of yet more unknown aspects of perception, often referred to as “higher” brain functions, though they undoubtedly trickle top-down to influence the very early stages of perception: the integration of one’s own memory and emotions, associations with anything relevant to the work at hand, intellectual significance. No one is claiming to have answers to everything yet– just go back and read Zeki’s passage quoted above to remind yourself of the end-of-the-day humility of someone at the center of the work that Noë is criticizing.
Some of us might wonder whether the relevant question is how we perceive works of art, anyway. What we ought to be asking is: Why do we value some works as art? Why do they move us? Why does art matter? And here again, the closest neural scientists or psychologists come to saying anything about this kind of aesthetic evaluation is to say something about preference. But the class of things we like, or that we prefer as compared to other things, is much wider than the class of things we value as art. And the sorts of reasons we have for valuing one art work over another are not the same kind of reasons we would give for liking one person more than another, or one flavor more than another. And it is no help to appeal to beauty here. Beauty is both too wide and too narrow. Not all art works are beautiful (or pleasing for that matter, even if many are), and not everything we find beautiful (a person, say, or a sunset) is a work of art.
Again we find not that neuroaesthetics takes aim at our target and misses, but that it fails even to bring the target into focus.
Why do I value Monet’s Impression Sunrise? For many reasons. Some art historical– its significance to the school of impressionism, its departures and influences. Some personal and indescribable– waves of feeling, a sudden mood. And some reasons, despite Noë’s overbearing negativity, stemming from recent offerings of perceptual neuroscience. When I read Livingstone’s account of Sunrise, I was given an awareness of the perceptual process occurring inside my own biology that added deep value to my conscious awareness of viewing the art, just as my own emotional resonances and art historical understanding of the piece had.
Livingstone’s work led me to some new questions I hadn’t really considered before in studying art history: Maybe some artists have intuitively, quite unconsciously, tapped into universal features of our neurobiology to induce widespread appreciation of their artistic output? Maybe it follows, then, that it could be interesting and useful to study these universal aspects of our biology of perception?
Yet it’s early. Neuroaesthetics, like the neuroscience of consciousness itself, is still in its infancy. Is there any reason to doubt that progress will be made? Is there any principled reason to be skeptical that there can be a valuable study of art making use of the methods and tools of neuroscience? I think the answer to these questions must be yes, but not because there is no value in bringing art and empirical science into contact, and not because art does not reflect our human biology.
“Value” here is totally relative, totally subjective. If this passage told me anything, it’s that Noë and I have a very different definition of what a “valuable study of art” is.
To begin to see this, consider: engagement with a work of art is a bit like engagement with another person in conversation; and a work of art itself can be usefully compared with a humorous gesture or a joke. Just as getting a joke requires sensitivity to a whole background context, to presuppositions and intended as well as unintended meanings, so “getting” a work of art requires an attunement to problems, questions, attitudes and expectations; it requires an engagement with the context in which the work of art has work to do. We might say that works of art pose questions and encountering a work of art meaningfully requires understanding the relevant questions and getting why they matter, or maybe even, why they don’t matter, or don’t matter any more, or why they would matter in one context but not another. In short, the work of art, whatever its local subject matter or specific concerns ― God, life, death, politics, the beautiful, art itself, perceptual consciousness ― and whatever its medium, is doing something like philosophical work.
I’m with Noë here– art and philosophy are doing similar work.
One consequence of this is that it may belong to the very nature of art, as it belongs to the nature of philosophy, that there can be nothing like a settled, once-and-for-all account of what art is, just as there can be no all-purpose account of what happens when people communicate or when they laugh together. Art, even for those who make it and love it, is always a question, a problem for itself. What is art? The question must arise, but it allows no definitive answer.
Absolutely! No one is saying they have a definitive answer, though.
For these reasons, neuroscience, which looks at events in the brains of individual people and can do no more than describe and analyze them, may just be the wrong kind of empirical science for understanding art.
Here Noë is being quite authoritative on two positions: first, that neuroscience is trying to be definitive about art (even Zeki doesn’t claim this), and second, that it’s the wrong kind of empirical study for understanding art. This is like telling your daughter she can’t go on a playdate with a new friend from school when a) your daughter hasn’t asked to go on the playdate yet, but merely mentioned that she talked to a new student that day, and b) you’ve personally never met nor seen this new student yourself. But no playdate!
Noë’s concluding sections are hasty, over-the-top, and they put words into the mouth of an entire scientific field:
Far from its being the case that we can apply neuroscience as an intellectual ready-made to understand art, it may be that art, by disclosing the ways in which human experience in general is something we enact together, in exchange, may provide new resources for shaping a more plausible, more empirically rigorous, account of our human nature.
Noë’s legion of strawmen rushing in with their ready-made neuroscientific answers to the deepest questions apparently need to go back home and question how empirically rigorous they’ve been. But if Noë has anything more to say about this “more plausible” and “more empirically rigorous” study of the perception of art, it’s not to be found here. Stirring up the conversation with alternative propositions or lines of research is a good thing; but putting words in a entire field’s mouth, telling it what it is not and will never be: these are things that, when posted on the New York Times’ site, amount to a swell of unfounded negativity in full public view. Noë comes off in this essay like Raymond Tallis, minus the humble Socratic admission of knowing that he doesn’t know. We’ll have to wait to see what Noë does suggest in his forthcoming book on art and human nature.
For the rest of the scientists out there studying perception and adding valuable voices to the chorus of a deepened and widened understanding of and appreciation for all forms of art, we can continue to thank the labs that slowly but surely generate the insights we find useful and insightful enough to include in peer-reviewed journals, academic textbooks, and books for the general public. The deepest questions– the rings of the “target” Noë believes neuroscience can’t even bring into focus– will not be answered instantaneously. That is why they are the deepest questions.