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« Coming To A Pulpit Near You | Main | A General Revolt »

April 14, 2006


I love the new name for this discipline and hope to take this topic up also at where we also bring together the experts in ways that help people use these great ideas to improve their situation. Thanks for the innovative suggestions here!

I was quite fascinated by Ramachandran pin-pointing a particular area of the brain - the "right parietal," as the region of artistic activity and by his claim that the brain recognizes metaphorical and hyper-distorted images of real objects as "art"

What practical application do you see for Neuro-aesthetics?

What a great question -- because I sense there are some amazing applications and since that is what I do, Ruchira, I'll think -- talk to others and get back.

Ruchira may already suspect that I'm lurking, but I can't keep quiet here. "What practical application...?" Precisely. It is a practical enterprise, this neuro-aesthetics (NA), which means it will serve practical ends. So when a skeptic like John Hyman writes, "I want to discuss a new area of scientific research called neuro-aesthetics, which is the study of art by neuroscientists," he is probably deliberately (for his antagonistic purporses) misrepresenting what such a study can or will do. Neuroscientists do not study art. They study brain activity. To the extent that "what art really is" can be so localized and specified in terms of brain activity, NA would have much to offer. But it won't have told us much about art, which after all has its social and material aspects, too. It will have told us something about a neurological component of art appreciation. The very framing of the query--"what art really is"--gives away the "real" nature of NA. What if art isn't really one thing or another?

Dean, thanks for lurking and for linking to the very interesting riposte by John Hyman.

Hyman raises some legitimate objections to Ramachandran and Zeki's narrow and perhaps self serving (to fit the observable data) definitions of art. I have not much to say here except what I already said in the comments thread of the earlier post - that neuroscience may well be capable of accurately detecting and recording an *aesthetic event* in the brain, but it will be a stretch to say that it will one day be able to accurately or comprehensively define *art*.

Hyman should have raised and supported his objections and let it go at that. Instead, he falls into the trap of his own orthodoxy when he goes on to tell us that the etching by Rembrandt is superior to the one by Carracci, and why.(It is irrelevant that I agree.) He need not have pointed his meticulous fingers at every curve and rumple in that delicious woodcut by Utamaro, instead of leaving it to us to savor (or pan) it. And from what authority does Hyman claim to know whether John Donne's erotic experience did or did not include his fingers straying between his lover's teeth?

Hyman harrumphs with displeasure that according to the scientists, neurological responses to MacDonald and Haagen Dasz could conceivably be in the same category as those triggered by Picasso and Cezanne. Why not? Just because he himself makes a supercilious intellectual distinction between one physiological response and another, it does not necessarily mean that there is one in the realm of the neural network. He can argue about the relative value of enjoying a hamburger and admiring a painting in our everyday cultural and social milieu but to a neuroscientist, the qualitative difference in the pleasure perception of the two in the brain may not be monumental.

So to end, I reiterate what I have said before. Let the scientists not overreach by trying to define art with a formula and a brain scan and the art mavens need not turn up their noses at what constitutes kitsch in their estimation and pure joy to someone else. I am with John Carey on this one.

Ruchira: I disagree that Hyman needn't have gone on about why the Rembrandt wins. He explains that "part of the business of criticism is [to] make these hard decisions, and to back them with convincing reasons." Is this tantamount to turning up one's nose? Not necessarily, and Hyman's perhaps fulsome descriptions at least provide material to which someone who has not been convinced can target a response.

I also think there's more going on here than the mere measurement and comparison of a category of brain activities. It's one thing for a neuroscientist to delimit such a category and proceed to demonstrate that burger responses are identical to Picasso responses. It's entirely another to dress up this exercise as a more precise, meaningful version of art criticism than, say, Hyman's.

I am in many respects a quietist, for better or worse. Here, however, I disagree that we are better served by silently tolerating each other's estimation as to what is a source of aesthetic pleasure.

Dean, you and I are focusing on two different aspects of art appreciation.

From an academic point of view, Hyman is doing his job well - in criticizing the Rembrandt vs Carracci etchings and backing it up with his reasons. For teachers, students, enthusiasts and the discipline of art (or literature) this is a valid (and valuable) exercise. This constitutes that 90% of the "learnt" aesthetics which Ramachandran alluded to. Which is why the Victorian British prude found the voluptuous Indian goddess figure so repulsive and why most Indians familiar with the goddess myth, find her utterly charming. Take for example the similes and metaphors used in ancient Indian mythology to describe a beautiful woman. Her eyes are like a "swarm of bumblebees" or like a "lotus flower" alluding to the dark color of the former and the size of the latter. Her legs are like "a banana tree" drawing upon the comparable smoothness of both. Indians readily understand what the poet refers to. Westerners will probably fall off their chairs laughing ... unless they too have studied and understood that line of beauty appreciation. Many decades ago, a reigning Miss World or Miss Universe, a blonde, was on a goodwill visit to an African country, I forget which one. The local women who had gathered to greet her were told that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. They asked politely what could be so beautiful about a woman who sported a lion's mane on her head.

My own concern here was that intangible (or perhaps the *more* tangible at a scientific level) 10%, which Ramachandran and Zeki claim is the universal visceral response to art. I do not know if we have one - whether all of it is not culture driven. My point is that we will never find out as long as Hyman and other wise men keep telling us what is beautiful. I would love to see a study of neuro-aesthetics free of cultural influences. But that will probably not be ever possible because all pleasure perception will be linked to our prior experience - even in the most naive savage. But there must be an *instinct* for art /aesthetics, be it visual, sensual or some primitive memory driven exercise of communication. Or else, not so many of us would be so enthralled by it.

It's time for areful thinkers like you Ruchira to brings these ideas into the workplace! and you ARE -- THANKS...”>Brain Based Business

Another author who has written vastly on this subject, albeit from an evolutionist's point of view, is Ellen Dissanayake. I read her "What is Art For" a few years ago and found it to be a fascinating read.

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