The Fear of Neuroesthetics

The Fear of Neuroesthetics

Science April 23, 2012 / By Semir Zeki
The Fear of Neuroesthetics

Science is reductionist by its nature. It cannot study a complex system as a whole; rather, it isolates its constituents first and tries to build a picture of the whole from studying its parts.


Every now and then, neuroesthetics is denounced in terms so emotional that one might be forgiven to think that, far from being an intellectual, experimental exercise in trying to learn something about the brain, it is some kind of new and devastating military adventure of awesome destructive power. A novelist has apparently described neuroesthetics as “one of the biggest follies of our era” and an “absolute idiocy… a form of absolute certainty that will flatten all the complexity of culture, and the beauty of it as well”. A bit over the top, one might think, given the daily follies in the political, military and economic spheres, which materially affect our lives far more than neuroesthetics ever will. Perhaps, one might also think, that the description of neuroesthetics as “flattening all the complexity of culture” is more appropriate to a description of dropping a nuclear bomb on some unfortunate country. Such descriptions not only endow neuroesthetics with extraordinary powers, which its practitioners never thought they possessed, but also betray a thrombotic loathing and fear of what neuroesthetics might achieve and reveal. 

Elsewhere, a philosopher has described neuroesthetics as “neurotrash”, thus licensing himself and others who may believe him from ignoring it completely. Yet it seems odd that a relatively new discipline, which has been inspired by debates in the humanities - about the nature of beauty, and its links to love and desire - to learn something about what happens in the brain when we have such experiences, should arouse such strong reactions in some. If something is indeed trash, why bother with it at all, let alone describe it as “one of the biggest follies of our era”? After all, what could be more harmless than trying to apply questions raised in the humanities to learning something about the brain, especially given the primacy that most philosophers of aesthetics have given to the senses?

Of course, when one categorizes a serious effort as “trash”, one insulates oneself from having to read what its practitioners have to say. An interesting example is to be found in a recent article in The Scotsman, curiously entitled “Art and science don’t mix”, which elicited this apt comment in the columns of the paper ”I would be very interested in what Leonardo might have to say about the statement "Art and Science Don't Mix." What indeed! 

At any rate, a correspondent drew my attention recently to this article, which describes neuroesthetics as “unadulterated bunkum”. It is an interesting article to read, for it betrays a complete lack of understanding of the aims of neuroesthetics and ends with a spectacular own goal.

Using a somewhat far-fetched example, the author of The Scotsmanarticle writes that, “If you take a bit of [James] Joyce’s brain and put it under the microscope, it’s not going to explain Finnegans Wake”. But far from trying to “explain” a work of art or a literary masterpiece, neuroesthetics only tries to gain insights from them to try and learn something about the brain. There are many examples one could give. Mondrian’s artistic exploration of what element is the essential constituent of all forms (the straight line) is a question that is almost identical to the neurobiological question of how the brain represents or constructs forms, especially since the discovery of cells in the visual brain which respond selectively to straight lines. To be inspired by Mondrian’s question and by his artistic explorations to frame scientific questions about the brain does not amount to explaining Mondrian’s work. Equally, no neurobiologist interested in the brain mechanisms mediating our experience of love would want to ignore the world literature of love for insights. This does not amount to trying to “explain” (whatever that may mean) Tristan und Isolde or Madame Bovary or Wuthering Heights

The author continues triumphantly, “Neuroaesthetics may be a very new field, and neurology may be relatively contemporary, but aesthetics has been studied for millennia.” Precisely! And that is why neuroesthetics relies so heavily on the fruits of these studies and is inspired by them. What is so outrageous about that? How does it amount to a “folly” which will “flatten all the complexity of culture”? 

With such contempt does the author maneuver himself into a position where he can mock the article without troubling himself to read what we have written. He writes “It is unclear to me who, for example, decided in the UCL experiment that Guido Reni was somehow objectively less ugly than Hieronymus Bosch”. Well, it is actually spelled out quite clearly, and quite early on in our paper, that each subject gave their own rating for how beautiful the paintings they saw or the musical excerpts they listened to were. No one else rated the paintings for them. The author’s confusion nevertheless leads him to deliver a neat little lecture to those like us whom he supposes to be ignorant of art and about art, or at least less knowledgeable about it than himself: “but the claim lays bare a deeper misunderstanding about art: the idea that in the visual arts beauty is the highest aim. It is not just a legacy of Modernism that we have a more sophisticated idea about art’s aims. In the Renaissance, Caravaggio and Grunewald set out to shock, unsettle and challenge; as did Goya and Doré in the 19th century. Paintings by Poussin, David and Magritte invite a cerebral response as well as an emotive one. From revulsion to awe and from laughter to enigma, art is more than a matter of ‘beauty’”

If he had bothered to read further down our article – though admittedly this is some 8 pages into the article - he would have seen the following: 

Notions of art have since changed and many will today acknowledge that something considered to be a work of art need not be perceived as beautiful, good examples being some of the paintings of Francis Bacon, or the nudes of Lucian Freud, which is not to say that these works do not have considerable artistic merit both in their painterly style and in projecting truths, including truths about decay and ugliness. But any work, be it considered art or not, may be subjectively experienced as being beautiful by an individual. This leads us to divorce art from beauty in this discussion and concentrate on beauty alone. “ 

But the best is left to the end, when the author quotes approvingly Picasso as having said “when we love a woman we don’t start by measuring her limbs.” There are no quotation marks and no reference to source, so it is hard to know whether this is quoted out of context or not. Picasso was an intelligent man and I find it hard to credit him with having said something quite so silly. But assuming that the quote is not taken out of context, it must rank as one of the silliest things anyone – let alone a painter – can say. For, of course, men make very detailed assessments when they meet a woman, and women do the same when they meet men. These assessments are undertaken before they fall in love. They do not use rulers but other subtle measuring systems in the brain. Had the author not decided that all that neuroesthetics has to say is trash, he might even have learned something about the attempts of neuroscience to learn how we assess people.


The highly emotional language used by some to describe neuroesthetics, of which I gave a selection in my previous post, suggests a fear – and an irrational one at that – of neuroesthetics. Fear is an interesting state, to which I will return in a future post. But here I want to examine one of the arguments used to trash neuroesthetics by those who fear it so much – “trash” being their word to describe neuroesthetics. 

The charge is that even a very detailed study by neuroscientists of the brain’s reaction to an artistic work – or a very detailed study of its creator – will not “explain” the work. The columnist in The Scotsman article gave the example of Finnegan’s Wake. A friend of mine told me of the complaint of a philosopher about neuroesthetics, that no amount of studying the brain response to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isoldewill “explain” it. I wrote in my previous post that it is not the aim or mission of neuroesthetics to explain works of art. On the contrary, neuroesthetics is inspired by works of art and debates in the humanities to learn something about the brain. Let me emphasize that we do not try to “explain” the brain either, but just to gain some insights into its functioning.

However, since one of the chosen terrains by those who wish to “trash” neuroesthetics is that of explanation, it is worth reflecting briefly on who are they who have been trying throughout the ages to “explain” works of art and music and literature.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of books and articles written on Hamlet. The number of books and articles on the Tristan chord alone exceeds 2000. Many books and articles have been written to “explain” TS Eliot’s poetry [An interesting point here: Eliot reputedly once told a man who tried to explain some lines of his: “Thank you for explaining it to me. I didn’t understand it before” – or words to that effect]. Untold thousands of articles and books have been written trying to “explain” the works of some painter or another. And the list goes on!

Who has written these books and articles? Not neurobiologists, but art critics, literary critics, etc. If they try to “explain” these works, it must mean that they think that there is something explicable about them. And if so, why should they restrict to themselves, or to humanists in general, the privilege of explaining them? Why should a neurobiologist not have the same privilege, even if in the end his or her explanation turns out to be “trash”? Would it not be worth reading their “explanations” (assuming them to have given any) before dismissing in emotionally charged language that what they write is “trash”? 

I may add that I often read the explanations provided by art and literary critics of art works with profit and pleasure. Some may seem far-fetched, others are sober and level-headed, many are interesting and inspiring in terms of new ideas and connections. It would never cross my mind to dismiss their collective efforts as “trash”.

I have here used the word explain in quotes throughout, partly because I am quoting those who dismiss neuroesthetics and partly because I do not understand what is meant by “explaining” a work such as Tristan und Isolde or Hamlet. One may want to explain something about the work – many articles have discussed whether Richard Wagner destroyed tonal music in Tristan – but I am not sure that any article succeeds in explaining so complex a masterpiece as Tristan. Where an attempt is made to explain a whole work in a few lines, the result is often unsatisfactory. I once heard an historian trying to explain the whole of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by saying that it can be summarized thus, “That all power corrupts”. Well, that is not quite the “explanation” that I would read into that work. My explanation, if I had to reduce it to a few words, would be: That good and evil reside in most men, and that they come especially to the fore when men have power, though only momentarily, because men, like the empires they create, are ephemeral and ultimately all are crushed by history and destiny. My explanation, too, is unsatisfactory and does not provide an explanation of the whole of Gibbons’ masterpiece, nor would I claim that it is better than the one given by the political historian. Indeed, I am not sure that there can be a simple explanation for Gibbons’ subtle and brilliant masterpiece.

To sum up – once it is acknowledged implicitly, through the many articles written about works of literature, art and music, that there is something explicable in them, the terrain of explanation on which those who want to dismiss neuroesthetics plant their dismissal simply vanishes. They should try hard to find better grounds.


It is worth examining briefly another terrain – reductionism - on which some display their fear and loathing of neuroesthetics. I say some because I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush. In my experience, a significant number of those in the humanities I meet are very hospitable to neuroesthetics. This is especially true of artists and composers. They do not seem to fear us. They want to learn more.

As I have argued on this site before, science is reductionist by its nature. It cannot study a complex system as a whole; rather, it isolates its constituents first and tries to build a picture of the whole from studying its parts. This is true of the study of matter by physics and chemistry – to study the particles constituting matter in terms of atoms and electrons and neutrons, and then the sub-atomic parts, and so on. It is true of biology and medicine, which tries to isolate, for example, the constituents of a cell to study their chemistry, or molecular biology, and to learn how these constituent parts interact. Yet this kind of necessary reductionism is, rightly, never criticized. Any perceived reductionism by neuroesthetics is, on the other hand, roundly condemned, at least by those who see it as having the imaginary powers to “flatten our culture”.

But let us forget chemistry, physics, and biology and delve into the humanities, and into the arts, that is to say into the territory from which the vociferous critics of neuroesthetics come. How certain is it that artists and art historians and philosophers of aesthetics do not indulge in the same kind of reductionism that the critics of neuroesthetics find so odious?

When the English art historian, Clive Bell, asks in his book Art what “Sta Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne” have in common because “either all works of visual art have some common quality, or when we speak of ‘works of art’ we gibber”, is he not being reductionist? 

And when Immanuel Kant writes in The Critique of Judgment of asensus communis which gives universal validity to the aesthetic judgment of an individual, is he not being reductionist?

How do these differ, in terms of reductionism, from the quest of neurobiologists to learn what kind of brain activity is common to the experience of all beauty in all humans, regardless of the source of the beauty (i.e. whether it is a portrait painting, or a landscape or a musical excerpt) and regardless of the cultural, educational and ethnic backgrounds of those experiencing beauty?

And when Piet Mondrian, in his artistic exploration of form, asks what is the essential constituent of all forms and settles on the vertical and horizontal straight lines, is he not being reductionist? 

And how does this differ in terms of reductionism from the quest of neurobiologists to learn whether orientation selective cells in the visual brain (cells which respond specifically to straight lines) are the physiological building blocks of form in the brain?

Is the neurobiologist more reductionist than the artist in this instance?

And when kinetic artists emphasize motion and de-emphasize colour and form, are they not being reductionist?

And when Paul Cézanne considers all the variety of the natural world in terms of the cone, the cylinder and the sphere, is he not being reductionist?

Is abstract art not reductionist? 

And this is only a brief list. There are many more examples of reductionism in the humanities.

In light of the above, it is interesting to ask why some single out neuroesthetics to stigmatize it with their hate word “reductionist”?

What exactly are they so afraid of?
This text originally appeared at Prof. Zeki's blog "Musings"
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