Friday, 8 March 2013

Neuroarthistory : What Neuroscience can tell us about Art

Francesco’s last post reminded me of a conference/summer school that I am thinking of attending this summer on the contributions of Neuroscience to our understanding of art. While Francesco discusses how art can be used to explain neuroscience, this post is about how neuroscience can enhance our understanding of art.

In the last few years, two exciting new fields of study have emerged, Neuroarthistory and Neuroaesthetics which are attempting to bring together the study of Art and Neuroscience.

The summer school will be directed by one of the leading neuroarthistorians, John Onians. Onians suggests that our knowledge of phenomena such as neural plasticity and mirror neurons could allow us to answer with a new level of precision some of the most challenging questions about both the creative process and the response to art. He has been working in collaboration with neuroscientist Semir Zeki to investigate what goes on inside the brain of artists, using neuroimaging to study the underlying neurobiological processes involved in the creation and appreciation of visual art.

In his book Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (1999), Zeki attributes the distinctive effects found in the work of artists such Mondrian, Malevich, and the Fauves to their acting on different types of neurons in our visual pathways. He found that paintings by Mondrian preferentially appeals to cells in regions V1 and V4, while the Fauves stimulate V4 plus the middle frontal areas.

As professor Helen Bynum puts it in her review of Onian’s book Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki, “Onians and Zeki both believe that past and present artists’ experiments with line, form, and color are in fact neural experiments and that, either consciously or unconsciously, artists are thus neuroscientists”.

An interesting interview Onians gave for the Tate can be found here.

While Onian’s approach is generally met with positive responses, it has also attracted some criticism on the part of neuroskeptics such as Raymond Tallis, a respected physician-philosopher and contributor to the Lancet. Tallis has received a lot of attention by accusing new trends such as Neuroarthistory of ‘neuromania’, the notion that to understand people you must peer into the "intracranial darkness" of their skulls with brain-scanning techniques. In his review of Onian’s book, he remarks that “the magnificent intellectual achievement of neuroscience has a growing shadow: neuroscientism.” He goes on to argue that the emergence of Neuroaesthetics is “an extreme expression of the faith of neuroscientism”. I recommend reading the full review, which can be found here.

So, should Neuroarthistory be considered Neuroscience or ‘neurotrash’, as Tallis sees it? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.



  1. I found this an interesting post - and the (quite long) statements of Onions and Tallis behind the links are worth reading, too.
    But after reading all this I'd like to come back to the beginning claim of Onions that his research will "answer with a new level of precision some of the most challenging questions about both the creative process and the response to art".
    This sounds exciting, but I am still not too sure in what way neuroscience really "can enhance our understanding of a r t": So what does it mean if different areas in the brain lit up when viewing works by different artists? Does that not merely show that some discrimination is taking place, as all our experiences of the world can be perceived as more similar or different to one another?
    Onions is also using the example of an unfinished sculpture of Michelangelo, saying that we respond to it because our brain needs to deal with and resolve the indeterminate. While it might be that this is the case, in my opinion that doesn't tell us much about art or art critique: This "neural effort" as one could call it, could result in the art being seen as interesting, but also as stressful and therefore not pleasant. Or it could have no effect on our judgment of the piece of art at all.
    Thus, these neural techniques don't tell us anything about how we perceive the art work, what our response to it would be. Certainly there can't be a rule drawn from this (although Onions/Zeki seem to believe so), stating that "unfinished art pieces are artistically more interesting and more valuable".
    So what can this research really tell us about the response to art?
    Maybe that there might be certain preferences that might be inborn (such as being drawn to human faces). But this then seems to merely be an attention phenomenon - and it doesn't have to do anything with what is ultimately perceived when looking at an art work as a whole or when making a judgement about it.

  2. I'm with Tallis and Poehls on this one. Neuroarthistory may tell us something (I'm not denying that there is probably a 'raw' aesthetic element to the appreciation of some art), but it completely omits the historical and social context and disregards the process of interpretation that a person presumably brings to bear when they engage with a work of art.

    Everything higher-order is ignored - as Tallis says, we reflect on art, we don't just enjoy the 'tingle' it gives us, so it falls short as a description of how the individual's experience and judgements are formed.

    And of course, these individual experiences and judgements are not formed in a vacuum. The approach ignores how the varieties in art-taste map so neatly onto socioeconomic classes and subcultures, and why public taste changes over time. Why do we have the tastes we do? 'Art appreciation' may also often involve allowing oneself to like or dislike things in a way that will demonstrate group affiliation or exclusivity. If this is unclear in the realm of visual art, just think how clouded with identity politics music appreciation has become. Neuroaesthetics could explain certain basic features of visual appreciation (features that would be shared by natural scenes I imagine), but I don't see how it could explain variation in art-taste, or the regularities to be seen in that variation.

  3. You guys might like this recent article I found on PLOS biology entitled 'Neuroaesthetics and the trouble with beauty':