Art and Neuroscience: a State of the Union

To prepare for Thursday’s This is Your Brain on Art panel at 3rd Ward, in Brooklyn, NY, I outlined several distinct approaches in the current conversation between art and neuroscience, a field of inquiry often dubbed neuroaesthetics. The following outline is most likely incomplete. It is an attempt to quickly organize the many strains of research and thought on these issues, so please post any additions you think of in the comments section below. I tried to identify a few lines of inquiry into the relationship between art and the brain, and to describe the angle of each line’s approach to that relationship.

Here are three approaches:

1.  Art —-> Brain. The perception of art by the brain.

This is the approach that studies what happens to art when it enters the brain: how our brains reconstruct, assess, and fasten judgement to works of art. This includes not only bottom-up flows (sensory input moving higher and higher, up into the cortex), but also top-down flows (expectations influencing the viewing or listening process; jogged memories coloring our incoming perceptions). These flows are what the vast majority of current neuroaesthetics research is concerned with, and indeed what most books concerning art and the brain investigate. What this approach is most interested in is perception and analysis of basic aesthetic details: how we see color, detect motion, hear sound, recognize faces, feel rhythm, and what the peculiarities of each perceptual system tell us about the way the brain stitches these properties together. Then, at the next level, we can begin to untangle emotional and executive areas of the brain and their involvement in making and viewing art. Art’s effects can be correlated with the production of fear via the amygdala, pleasure in the nucleus accumbens, mystery/problem solving in the prefrontal cortex, disgust in the insula. Also involved at these higher levels is our empathetic connection to the work, be it a character in a film, or a melody in a song, and the top-down control it has over the perception of the work at hand.

This approach can focus on any artform as it enters the brain, such as:
    • Visual art. How the brain sees paintings and sculptures, from color and luminance to faces and perspective. Perhaps the most work is being done here, with big names like Livingstone, Zeki, and Ramachandran. Here is a review of some visual neuroaesthetics work by those aforementioned heavyweights, and a podcast with Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist and painter who is interested in the relationship between those two disciplines.
    • Music. This line of inquiry moves from perception of sound by mechanical sensors in our cochlea to the processing of it in auditory cortex, and the rich tapestry of emotion that music can provoke within us. This is Your Brain on Music is a popular book in this field by Dan Levitin, exploring findings from the neuroscience of music. Elsewhere, we’ve posted about Charles Limb, who studies the brains of improvising jazz musicians. Many more labs touch on these questions; please post in the comments with your own specific examples.
    • Literature. Though there’s some interesting work being done here, it’s perhaps the haziest of the artistic disciplines to approach with the tools of present- day neuroscience. Most real science being done that involves the literary arts concerns very elemental stages of reading– one word, one sentence– and their neural correlates, as seen through a fMRI scanner. Here’s a NY Times article about some of this recent fMRI work on the neuroscience of the written word. Another strain of this inquiry involves literature in the context of Darwinian evolution– here’s an overview from Beautiful Brain contributor Ben Ehrlich about the “Literary Darwinists.”
    • Dance. This line of inquiry concerns the perception of movement, and perhaps most importantly, the alleged mirror neuron system. The Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series featured choreographer Mark Morris and neuroscientist Bevil Conway in discussion about the relationship between dance and the brain. Cognitive neuroscientist Mark Changizi has a theory about the relationship between dance, music, and the brain, that’s worth looking into: Changizi believes music has been culturally selected over time to sound like human movement.
    • Theater & Film. Theater and film have a special relationship with the brain (see next section). Both must necessarily be studied in the broadest of terms– for unlike visual art or music, both are truly multisensory experiences and thus harder to study at the level of isolated perceptual systems. There have been some inroads made, especially along the “neurocinematics” avenue (there’s a good review of the field by the Neurocritic).

2.   Art <—-> Brain. The parallels between art and the brain.

This is the approach that lines up art and the brain next to each other and examines the similarities between the processes of our mind and the artwork that those minds create. It’s here where I think the conversation around cinema and theater really takes off. In particular, film, in its aesthetic and sensory richness (and best viewing space: a darkened theater) gets the closest, as an artform, to the sensory and emotional unity of human consciousness, and maybe more specifically, human dreaming, as housed in the activity of the brain.

Some further thoughts on these parallels, specific to film.

  • A film is a constructed subjective experience, very much like one’s own consciousness. The construction of a film includes editing (mirroring our own selective and sometimes modified memories), framing (where we look, how we hear, what came before), rhythm (day and night, patterns of movement, a beating heart).
  • A film has a scope, be it of a historical event, a range of emotion in a specific moment, a day in a person’s life, and so on, that is achieved both by what is seen and heard in the film, and also by what is not seen and heard. The power of suggestion, of the unsaid, can bear tremendous weight in a film, mirroring the tip-of-iceberg consciousness we all experience, and the vast scope of our unconscious experience, resting just beneath that surface. In this way, film not only parallels our conscious, edited experience, but also the non-conscious, suggested experience, which can color much of the way we see the world.

3.   Art <—- Brain. The brain, as seen through the lens of art.

This is an approach that feels less common, but that I think has huge potential, and it’s the one I’m personally the most interested in. This is the approach that believes art to be a valuable lens through which to observe and understand subjective, first-person consciousness in the brain. In other words, it’s interesting to study the brain during an artistic experience, but once we’ve lined up all subjective experience to constellations of firing neurons and distinct chemical washes in the brain, and we understand the general architecture of the brain, maybe we actually need to look at the art itself as a unique mirror of the internal landscapes of subjective experience. For if we’ve understood the architecture, maybe in order to break new ground on understanding what goes on inside those rooms, where first-person consciousness takes flight, we’ll need to look more closely at how different modes and styles of art are true reflections of the neural landscapes they emerged from. John Onian’s concept of “Neuroarthistory”  is the closest current approach to this line of thinking that I’m aware of (here’s a podcast I taped with Mr. Onians).

This third approach is related to #2 above, but here you’re really stitching together everything from #1 and #2 to make strides in understanding the highest functions of the mind through the art it makes and sees. You’re not treating the art as a passive artifact that only comes to life once it’s ingested by the nervous system, which you then set about studying. In this third approach, you’re treating the art as a sort of living record of the nervous system from which it emerged. For one such attempt at this type of approach, here’s an essay I wrote on this site about abstract art and its roots in hierarchical neural architecture.

Finally, if you’re skeptical about this whole dialogue between the arts and brain sciences, maybe you will agree with this critique of neuroaesthetics by Alva Noë. Here is my response to Noë’s essay, in defense of neuroscience and neuroaesthetics. Please chime in with your views in the comments section below.



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Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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