Neuroaesthetics

Philosophy is in a strange place right now.  It struggles for relevance while the empirical sciences continue to master every area over which it once held sway.  In an interview with The Atlantic, physicist Lawrence Krauss puts it this way:

There are areas of philosophy that are important, but I think of them as being subsumed by other fields. In the case of descriptive philosophy you have literature or logic, which in my view is really mathematics. Formal logic is mathematics, and there are philosophers like Wittgenstein that are very mathematical, but what they’re really doing is mathematics—it’s not talking about things that have affected computer science, it’s mathematical logic. And again, I think of the interesting work in philosophy as being subsumed by other disciplines like history, literature, and to some extent political science insofar as ethics can be said to fall under that heading. To me what philosophy does best is reflect on knowledge that’s generated in other areas.

Alas, it seems that even aesthetics must now be subsumed by the sciences.  This is not a bad thing.  Why rely on metaphysical conjecture when physical data exists?  Indeed, the most interesting work being done in aesthetics right now relies on behavioral, psychological, and neurological data.  This interdisciplinary approach to art, I learned, is called “neuroaesthetics.”

In a blog post on Psychology Today, Dr. William Hirstein makes a strong case for this exciting new field “in which researchers attempt to understand how the brain responds to art.”   He asks:

What happens in the brain when people listen to their favorite piece of music or appreciate a great painting? Why do all human societies create and value art? How did a creature subject to the evolutionary process evolve the need for art? Does producing art have some sort of survival value for us, or is it merely associated with some more pragmatic trait that does?

Hirstein makes it clear that not all are happy with the idea of philosophy moving in this direction.  I am sure that neuroaesthetics strikes many as cold and detached.  For them, the mysteries of art remain forever outside the province of science.  But I think that such an approach is just what is needed.  In fact, I see no other alternative.

According to Hirstein:

If we refuse to look inside the skull, the tremendous variety of artworks can start to make the process of understanding what they have in common look hopeless. According to a view called “particularism” each artwork must be understood on its own merits, which may have nothing in common with any other artwork. But then how can we ever meaningfully speak and think about artists and art in general? Neuroaesthetics promises to break this deadlock by finding that the vast variety of artworks do have something in common: the response they provoke in our brains.

When I was studying the similarities between art and food, this type of neurological data was most helpful.  I suspect, too, that further studies in neuroaesthetics will demonstrate that the brain responds to other types of phenomena in a way eerily similar to that in which it responds to art. This will prove especially enlightening, and I look forward to the many new discoveries that work in this field is bound to yield.

Further reading:

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3 thoughts on “Neuroaesthetics

  1. I enjoyed this piece. Indeed, neuroscience is super trendy at the moment… I was told that if you want to get a decent job, it helps to throw in a “neuro-” prefix on whatever you call yourself. That said, I do have major reservations about just how much fMRI imaging can tells us. Activation of certain brain regions tells us nothing about anyone’s phenomenological experiences. I don’t think neuroimaging will ever subsume philosophy.

    • Yes, that is why an interdisciplinary approach is important. Philosophers must keep abreast of the latest science, and they must account for new discoveries that might challenge their present theories.

  2. “How did a creature subject to the evolutionary process evolve the need for art?”

    I doubt there will ever be a “good” definition of what [if anything] separates homo sapiens from the rest of the humble critters on this rock, but common consensus seems to be a prominent display of self-awareness. And, as far as I can reason, art is fundamentally a display of self-awareness, as individuals and as a group. Art is made by an individual about that individual’s awareness of his/her individual/group reality, but it is intended for audience by the group at large. The work of art is a comment– whether critical, constructive, cathartic, or merely creative– by the individual about the experience of the group. It tells stories. It paints portraits. It dramatizes dreams. It remembers. It imagines. It evokes. It soothes. And all of these are physiological, neurological needs, just as they are philosophical, psychological, and spiritual needs.

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