Neuroaesthetics my arse

Physician and philosopher Raymond Tallis has written a scorching article in The Times berating art critics for using poorly understood ideas from neuroscience when reviewing or interpreting literature, art or film.

He particularly focuses on an article by famed novelist A.S. Byatt where she suggests that the reason John Donne’s poetry is so compelling is because it engages particular brain processes.

Byatt is an interesting focus for criticism because she is probably one of the modern writers who is most engaged with cognitive and neuroscience.

She often does talks with psychologists and neuroscientists and has contributed to a Cambridge University Press book with a number of distinguished memory researchers and has just released a new jointly edited book charting similar territory.

However, Tallis takes Byatt to task for using neuroscience as little more than window dressing, and suggests the whole field of literary criticism is simply jumping on the brain science bandwagon to make up for the declining popularity of Freudian, Marxist, and postmodern theories that it used to be based on.

Implicitly, Tallis is suggesting that if Byatt can’t get it right, what hope is there for the rest of the critics:

A. S. Byatt’s neural approach to literary criticism is not only unhelpful but actually undermines the calling of a humanist intellectual, for whom literary art is an extreme expression of our distinctively human freedom, of our liberation from our organic, indeed material, state.

At any rate, attempting to find an explanation of a sophisticated twentieth-century reader’s response to a sophisticated seventeenth-century poet in brain activity that is shared between humans and animals, and has been around for many millions of years, rather than in communities of minds that are unique to humans, seems perverse. Neuroaesthetics is wrong about the present state of neuroscience: we are not yet able to explain human consciousness, even less articulate self-consciousness as expressed in the reading and writing of poetry. It is wrong about our experience of literature. And it is wrong about humanity.


It’s also notable that Tallis reserves some of his criticism for neuroscientists who oversell their work in the media, perhaps leading the public to justifiably think that they have explained some central human attribute when they’ve really done an interesting but limited lab experiment.

Link to Times article ‘The neuroscience delusion’ (via 3QD).

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