Neuroaesthetics and the state of the art

Seed Magazine has an excellent article by Mo Costandi discussing how the study of neuroaesthetics – the neuroscience of art and beauty – is really starting to take off with a dedicated research centre recently launched in London.

I love the idea of neuroaesthetics but remain a little skeptical, not least because some of the literature gives the impression that it’s revolutionising our understanding of art when psychologists have been researching it since the beginning of psychology. I’ve yet to see the ‘neuro’ aspect add anything particularly novel so far.

I’ve got a fascinating but out of print book called Cognitive Processes in the Perception of Art that has a collection of papers from a five day conference on art and cognition from 1983.

The chapters cover much of the same sort of thing that is discussed under the neuroaesthetics banner (just without the brain scans) – including methods, symbolism, visual perception, music, improvisation, aesthetics, beauty and synaesthesia.

The introduction is interesting as an overview of the fragmented history of the field, most of which seems to have been undertaken in the expectation that this was something new and exciting:

…since 1876, when Fechner initiated the empirical approach to art through his book ‘Vorschule der Aesthetik’ psychology has been characterized by different ‘schools'; there has been continual dispute about the proper subject-matter of the discipline and about the theories and methods which should be applied to it. In many cases, the various approaches – such as Behaviourism, Gestalt Theory, Psychoanalysis, Humanistic Psychology, Information Theory, and Cognitive Psychology – have made distinctive contributions to the arts. One consequence has been that particular artistic phenomena have been selectively examined and then assimilated to preferred theories and methods of working, and hence these phenomena have escaped broad and systematic investigation as distinctive phenomena in their own right. Approaches to the arts have often been superficial and fragmentary, as Kose points out in his chapter, traditional approaches to the study of art often reveal more about the workings of psychological investigation than they do about art.

I’ve still yet to see anything that advances on this position.

Furthermore, theories that simply redescribe what you’re trying to explain are generally thought to be useless and the test of a good theory is that it can make accurate predictions. Where relevant it also suggests where interventions will have predictable effects.

Consequently, I often wonder whether neuroaesthetics will ever lead to a new and innovative type of artwork or art practice.

One of the most interesting things I’ve read recently was a discussion on the empyre mailing list (thanks Julian!) with various artists discussing their work in the cognitive and neurosciences. I warn you, it’s a pain in the arse to read because it’s only available as list archives.

Nevertheless, it mentioned a piece called ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ which sounds fantastic:

Ghosts in the Machine is a generative, closed system. Random noise from a CCD camera is analyzed for patterns. An algorithm looks for patterns that match the basic geometry and physiognomy of the human face. What it actually finds are pixels on a screen forming blobs and patches of colour that have no actual relation to a real world face. They have no indexical relation to an object. They are not images of people, but another kind of image loaded with meaning, which arises accidentally, but irresistibly, from the hybrid interaction between machine and body. To all intents and purposes when these patches of pixels look like faces, they are images of faces. That such obscure images resolve themselves into faces without conscious effort, and that remain even when attending closely to them, suggests that it is paradoxically their lack of objective meaning that generates their form. It is the very ambiguity and intedeterminacy of the images that allows the brain to reconfigure them as indexical.

It’s part of the Einstein’s Brain Project which aims to explore “the notion of the brain as a real and metaphoric interface between bodies and worlds in flux, and that examines the idea of the world as a construct sustained through the neurological processes contained within the brain”.

Link to Seed article ‘Beauty and the Brain’.
Link to details of cognitive processes in art book.
Link to Einstein’s Brain Project.
Link to good neuroaesthics primer.

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