Art and Neuroscience: a State of the Union

Art and Neuroscience: a State of the Union

Arts October 10, 2012 / By Noah Hutton
Art and Neuroscience: a State of the Union

Neuroscience is providing a new language for questions of art and mind.

Chances are you've come across a neuro-something, sometime recently. Indeed, there's neuroscience, the study of the brain using the tools of modern science, but then there's an ever-growing constellation of its young, interdisciplinary offspring: neuroeconomics, neurogastrology, neurotheology, and even the pseudoscience-meets-beverage Neuro™, among others. The relative merit of each is up for debate (see a recent column by Steven Poole in The Guardian for a particularly critical stance towards these neuro-constructs, and another take-down by Alva Noë in The New York Times).

What I'm concerned with here, and will be in future posts on this site, is one of the more prominent members of this interdisciplinary offspring: neuroaesthetics, the conversation between brain science and the arts. The field is undoubtedly young and still finding its legs, leaving it vulnerable to criticism from the Steven Pooles and Alva Noës of the world, who see wishy-washy, romanticized bridge-building in such a pursuit. I disagree. I believe one should not confuse infancy with naïveté — that neuroscience is indeed giving us a new language through which we can ask new questions about art, its effects on the observer, its genesis in the creative mind, and its possible explanatory power in dealing with murky subjects like consciousness, subjective experience, and memory.

To begin, I will try to identify a few lines of inquiry into the current dialogue between art and neuroscience, and to describe the angle of each line's approach to that relationship. It's most likely an incomplete outline, so please chime in with any additions you can think of in the comments section. This outline was the basis of my talking points at "This Is Your Brain on Art," a panel I sat on recently at 3rd Ward in Brooklyn, NY, and originally appeared in text form, before the event, over at my website The Beautiful Brain.

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 do our brains reconstruct, assess, and fasten judgment 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 of external aesthetic features translated into internal neural activity are what the vast majority of current neuroaesthetics research is concerned with, and indeed what most books concerning art and the brain investigate. Here we're interested in perception and analysis of these basic features of an artwork: 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 heightened activity in the amygdala, pleasure in the nucleus accumbens, mystery/problem-solving in the prefrontal cortex, disgust in the insula-- all operating purely as correlations of subjective experience to distinct brain-states. Also surely 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 that empathy has over the ongoing perception of the work at hand.

This approach can focus on any art form as it enters the brain, such as:

  • Visual art. How the brain sees paintings and sculptures, from color and luminance to faces and perspective. There is a boatload of work going on here, with big names like Livingstone, Zeki, and Ramachandran. Here is a review of some visual neuroaesthetics work by those heavyweight researchers, and a podcast with Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist and painter who is interested in the relationship between science and art.
  • Music. This line of study moves from perception of sound by mechanical sensors in our cochlea to its processing in the 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 neuroscientist and musician Dan Levitin. Examples of this kind of work abound; elsewhere, I've posted about Charles Limb, who studies the brains of improvising jazz musicians, yielding some interesting initial results.
  • 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 an 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 for the neuroscientific angle, 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 the next section for some thoughts on this). 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 one another 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 optimal viewing space, in my opinion: a darkened theater) gets the closest, as an art form, 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 filmmaker goes out, collects footage, and edits it together, constructing a unique consciousness that can be presented in a two-hour window. 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. This mirrors the tip-of-the-iceberg consciousness we all experience, with 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 one that I think has potential on the level of pure theory. 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, and we understand the general architecture of the brain, maybe we actually need to look at the art itself as an unparalleled mirror of the internal neural architecture that forms subjective experience. For if we've understood the architecture in purely neuroscientific terms, maybe in order to break new ground on understanding what goes on inside those rooms, how first-person consciousness takes flight from the connections and flows of activity among neurons in the brain, 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 an interview 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 with a unique perspective on the nervous system from which it emerged. For one such attempt at this type of approach, here's an essay I wrote over at The Beautiful Brain about abstract art and its roots in hierarchical neural architectures.

If you're still skeptical about this whole dialogue between the arts and brain sciences, maybe you will agree with the aforementioned 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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