Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Art and Neuroaesthetics

The best place to start when describing the goals of a research program is with the statements of the researchers themselves. V.S. Ramachndran, whose work on art and neuroscience has sparked a great deal of interest and controversy, put it this way1:
If a Martian ethologist were to land on earth and watch us humans, he would be puzzled by many aspects of human nature, but surely art—our propensity to create and enjoy paintings and sculpture—would be among the most puzzling. What biological function could this mysterious behaviour possible serve? Cultural factors undoubtedly influence what kind of art a person enjoys — be it a Rembrandt, a Monet, a Rodin, a Picasso, a Chola bronze, a Moghul miniature, or a Ming Dynasty vase. But, even if beauty is largely in the eye of the beholder, might there be some sort of universal rule or ‘deep structure’, underlying all artistic experience? The details may vary from culture to culture and may be influenced by the way one is raised, but it doesn’t follow that there is no genetically specified mechanism — a common denominator underlying all types of art. (p. 16)
The search for universals in art is by no means a new one, but Ramachandran and others (most notably Semi Zeki) have resolved to do so by understanding the neurological mechanisms that all (or most) art utilizes. Zeki writes2:
What is art? What constitutes great art? Why do we value art so much and why has it been such a conspicuous feature of all human societies? These questions have been discussed at length though without satisfactory resolution. This is not surprising. Such discussions are usually held without reference to the brain, through which all art is conceived, executed and appreciated. Art has a biological basis. It is a human activity and, like all human activities, including morality, law and religion, depends upon, and obeys, the laws of the brain. (p. 53)
If art, both in its creation and appreciation, is a product of brains, then it stands to reason that we may gain valuable insight into the nature of art by understanding how it acts on our brains. Specifically, we may be able to utilize our knowledge of the workings of the visual system, and its connections to emotional centers of the brain, to understand why certain themes, forms, and schemes can be found in art across cultures, and why some works of art are more aesthetically pleasing than others. In order to do this, Ramachandran, Zeki, and others have developed several hypotheses designed to produce testable predictions (often counterintuitive) about the role of the visual system in the production and appreciation of art.
This project differs, markedly, from traditional approaches to art, in which art is treated as amorphous, or ineffable; a product of irreducible subjective and cultural phenomena. Thus traditional aesthetic theories are untestable by their very nature. The hope of neuroscientists is not that art will be completely explainable from neurological principles alone. On the contrary, these neurological principles are meant to be foundations onto which the more subjective and culturally relative aspects of art are built. Even if the insights that we can gain from neuroscience constitute only a fraction of what art is (Ramachandran often uses 10% as a figure for the portion of art that he is attempting to explain0, then we will have accomplished something. We may then be better able to understand the development and utilization of subjective and cultural standards in art. posted by Chris @ Thursday, January 20, 2005

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