Neuroaesthetics: The Gathering

Top scientists and philosophers working at the intersection of art and neuroscience gather in New York City for the 2014 International Association of Empirical Aesthetics summit.
Ville cranienne (Skull City). AndreÌ Masson, 1940. Drawing on paper.
Ville cranienne (Skull City). AndreÌ Masson, 1940. Drawing on paper.

It’s hard to know how much we don’t know about the brain. The presence of vast unknowns in the field means that many current debates in neuroscience hinge on differing scales of inquiry and the significance of results from current methods. Are single neurons the place to look? How much weight do fMRI results bear? Do we actually even need to generate more data from real tissue, or is it time for large-scale brain simulation? What to spend our public billions on?

Neuroaesthetics faces similar issues, and although the findings it has offered in the past decades have gone far beyond traditional aesthetics (and I for one am a supporter), it has been attacked widely for perceived overstatements of its explanatory reach into zones traditionally under the authority of the humanities. Last weekend, at the 2014 IAEA (International Association of Empirical Aesthetics) biannual congress in New York City, current IAEA president Anjan Chatterjee seemed well aware of the ongoing criticism, and opened the meeting by providing a categorization scheme that helped clear up who is doing what, why they’re doing it, and what people know they are and aren’t doing when they conduct this kind of research and engage in its requisite collaborations. According to Chatterjee, whose recent book The Aesthetic Brain (Oxford) is a terrific primer on the field, there are three types of neuroaesthetics: depictive, descriptive, and experimental.

  • Depictive neuroaesthetics encompasses the visual depiction of neuroscience, where the images are scientifically accurate but the visual presentation of them is deliberately sculpted, such as Cajal’s classic images or more recently, Brainbow.
  • Descriptive neuroaesthetics refers to work that correlates activity in basic sensory areas of the brain with corresponding features in artworks– a sort of descriptive botany of the mind, where artworks are plucked as prototypes to discuss general neural responses– a dangerously seductive process akin to a stroll through a museum with a cognitive psychologist where each work risks being reduced to a perceptual trick, brain disorder, or similarly pre-packaged insight that relies heavily on fMRI and single-cell electrode experiments. There has been much foundational insight from this kind of work over the past decades, but its over-reliance as the rest of neuroscience continues to evolve puts descriptive neuroaesthetics in ever-weakening explanatory waters.
  • Experimental neuroaesthetics describes the maturing realms of this field, where “experiments are designed with controlled manipulation of variables of interest,” according to Chatterjee. This describes much of Chatterjee’s own work, and that of others like Ed Vessel and Jesse Prinz.

On Saturday, Art Shimamura spoke about his Dynamic Filtering Theory of the prefrontal cortex (PDF), a “grand unifying theory” that underlies the way he thinks about art and the brain. “At this stage, it’s important to look at the networks,” Shimamura observed, offering what could be taken as a credo for this next generation of experimental neuroaesthetics. Though neuroscientist Leah Kelly and I were critical of Shimamura’s recent book Experiencing Art (Oxford) in a recent review we co-authored for Science, his IAEA presentation offered a more nuanced approach to the complexity of network-level dynamics, summed up by a working mantra he shared with the audience gathered at Hunter College: “It’s a whole brain issue, stupid.”

Moments later, Ed Vessel launched into a wide-ranging and thoroughly sensational presentation, and Shimamura’s whole-brain mantra seemed to course through every slide. Vessel has established himself as one of the leaders of whole-brain experimental neuroaesthetics, connecting the act of evaluating artworks to relationships between specific regions of the brain, from perceptual and evaluative centers to areas implicated in the default mode network, the subject of an entire symposium earlier this year at Columbia (previously covered here).

After admitting the thorny issue of studying “meaning” in art (do you look at external, objective features, like symmetry and color, or at the internal subjective features, like novelty and associative meaning for the viewer?) Vessel mounted an impressive case for his method of measuring how “moving” people find works of art, whilst in a brain scanner, on a scale from 1-4. Vessel’s central scientific insight (full paper is here) demonstrates his whole-brain focus: when someone reports a work as especially moving, areas involved in the default mode network, which are usually correlated with autobiographical thought and inhibited when performing an outward, sense-dependent task, seem to “come online” while viewing these moving artworks, joining the sensory/perceptual areas and suggesting a neural signature for their personal, subjective resonance. Its intuitive logic is no mistake: this might be a first glimpse, albeit coarse and low-res, at the neuroscience of meaning.

LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT. Mel Bochner,1970. Chalk on paint on wall, 72 x 48 inches
Chalk on paint on wall, 72 x 48 inches

One of the most electrifying talks at IAEA followed from an unlikely question: “What can conceptual art teach neuroaesthetics?” Alex Kranjec, from Duquesne University, who spends most of his time studying the psychology of prepositions, started with a personal story of coming across the artwork of Mel Bochner at the National Gallery in D.C., and finding a kindred spirit in Bochner’s own mantras, that “Prepositions hold the world together” and “Language is not transparent.”

Bochner’s work led Kranjec to a wonderful insight, which he shared with the crowd gathered at IAEA: “Both conceptual artists and neuroscientists care about visualizing thought.” Kranjec believes that scientists ought to simplify, and think more like the first conceptual artists, who were thoroughly invested in picking apart the relations between objects (very much like analogy and metaphor are used in science) and succeeded by simplification and repetition. Picking apart a Joseph Beuys piece, for example, might need to wait until these foundational, object-oriented, relational steps are taken.

“Both conceptual artists and neuroscientists care about visualizing thought.” – Alex Kranjec

But the field of neuroaesthetics wants to do more, and now. Much current work focuses on the relationship between art and affect: do the aesthetic features of artworks themselves provoke emotional responses in viewers, or are emotional responses a “downstream” event, more dependent on associate relations and subjective, personal context? Or, as Jesse Prinz’s work has explored, do certain affective responses become more likely given how we’ve been primed prior to viewing? Though it’s likely the answers are muddy mixes of the above, it was the staking of absolutist positions at IAEA in relation to emotion and art that provoked some intriguing fireworks.

It started with David Freedberg, who sees empathetic engagement with art as an almost involuntary, immediate event. Delivering a keynote address at IAEA last Saturday, he flashed a slide of a renaissance painting depicting the Virgin Mary slumping at the feet of Christ’s bloodied body, and explained that his hypothesis has always been that when we see such a work, “we notice that we have that slump within ourselves,” that we feel the physical depiction on a premotor level just as much as we purely see it. In collaboration with Vittorio Gallese, Freedberg has furthered this kind of application of mirror neuron theory to aesthetics, arguing that motor cortex-driven empathetic embodiment is a central force in the viewer’s engagement with a work of art (Other of Gallese’s collaborators have similarly applied embodiment theory to cinema).

Freedberg is developing a new model of aesthetic evaluation, which he briefly teased near the end of his presentation: essentially, that an artist’s ability to engage motor involvement is key to the success of the work initially– but it’s a crucial next step of inhibiting the motor response, which Freedberg localizes in the basal ganglia, that is necessary for the separation of viewer from viewed object, thus creating the opportunity for a more removed, evaluative moment. In this model, empathy is an essential motivating step, but it is the subsequent restraint of movement that allows for a separation of self from the artwork, so that judgement can commence. It would be interesting to know how this lines up with Ed Vessel’s model, as described above (I asked both Vessel and Freedberg for comment on this, but both felt it’s too early to draw conclusions on the relationship).

The Weather Project. Olafur Elliason, 2003. Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.
The Weather Project. Olafur Elliason, 2003. Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.

With Freedberg’s description of art as empathetic motivator hanging in the air, it was Vladimir Konecni of UCSD who took the podium and railed against the idea that art provokes direct emotional responses, a stance which provoked the largest emotional response from the gathered audience, as measured by the length and vocal tones of the Q&A that followed.

Konecni bluntly stated that he doesn’t believe paintings “sufficiently engage with the viewer’s intimate associative and memory systems,” and thus that “paintings are not sufficiently powerful to induce psychobiological states in viewers.” According to Konecni, emotions are acute, and they have unambiguous causes and objects– this is to be distinguished from moods. With paintings being insufficient to directly provoke emotions, Konecni finds more reliable responses of aesthetic awe in large installation pieces, like Elliason’s artificial sun at the Tate Modern, or Richard Serra’s work. In canceling out emotion from the discussion of artwork’s direct (a)ffects, Konecni is essentially calling for a return to Greenbergian formalism in art discourse.

The fireworks ensued when the eminent aesthetician and philosopher of art Noel Carroll challenged Konecni in the Q&A. Carroll, who had delivered the opening plenary talk a day earlier, raised a counterexample of visual art he believes does provoke direct, emotional responses: humorous or politically-charged comics. The exchange quickly devolved, with Konecni using it as an opportunity to counter-criticize Carroll’s own talk, which had focused on art as an evolutionarily adaptive behavior, and Carroll repeating the same question several more times. Though the brevity of the Q&A didn’t allow for any proper dialogue to unfold, the exchange between Konecni and Carroll was refreshingly pointed, and left me wanting to hear more of a dialogue between these two heavyweight thinkers who clearly disagree on some basic aspects of experiencing art.

The conventions of scholarly meetings serve certain needs of a field, by bringing together disparate strands of research and allowing for formal presentations of new work and informal conversations during coffee breaks, which can often lead to future collaborations. But the brief fireworks between Konecni and Carroll made me yearn for more formalized debates in these situations, so that certain other needs could be served– those of verbalizing disagreements, finding middle grounds, and casting away outdated concepts. These processes do happen, slowly and more passively, in the scholarly exchanges that occur from one paper to the next, from a book to its critical review, or from a scheduled talk to the next scheduled talk– and there is surely value to the longer durations of time involved in these conventions, where one can deliberate, write, and then deliver a well-reasoned argument. But an occasional live debate frames these processes in a shorter timespan, and gives them a safe space to play out more rapidly. For it is in pronouncing one’s difference of opinion– which surely do exist, as Chatterjee noted, from the inside and from the outside of neuroaesthetics, just like they do in neuroscience in general– where the conventions of academic politesse can be temporarily sidelined and true convictions can be put to the test. Just like recent debates regarding the Human Brain Project have given proponents and critics more opportunities to sharpen their arguments in the public sphere, some time allotted for debates at scholarly conferences could promote healthy disciplinary plasticity, and help to hone its participants’ messages to a public eager to hear what neuroscience has to say about art.

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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