By Jessica Herrington
Neuroaesthetics is hardly a word that rolls easily off the tongue. Yet, this new discipline is attracting interest from neuroscientists, art historians, artists and psychologists alike. The field analyzes the brain in order to understand how we see and make art. Articles on the topic are even appearing in prestigious scientific journals such as PLoS One, but can understanding creativity help us understand the brain?
This question is being investigated by Professor Semir Zeki at the University College London. Zeki and his colleagues study the neurobiological foundations of aesthetic experience. To do this, Zeki uses neuroimaging techniques to study the brains of people viewing works of art. The resulting brain scans show that different types of aesthetic experiences activate specific brain regions. By analyzing aesthetic experiences in people with brain damage, these findings can be useful in gaining a more comprehensive understanding of how the human brain works during normal and abnormal cognitive function.
Meanwhile at UC Berkeley, Professor Vilayanur Ramachandran and his colleagues have proposed 8 ‘laws’, which may influence how we process visual aspects of art. While these laws may not explain the whole of aesthetic experience, it is plausible that they may play some role in explaining why we appreciate art. In addition, the laws proposed by Ramachandran may explain why popular artworks throughout various cultures share certain features.
As expected, neuroaesthetics is not without its critics. In particular, philosopher Alva Noe asserts that the approach to art by scientists is too narrow, while the claims made for neuroaesthetic theories are too grand. While there may be an element of truth to this, neuroaesthetics is not just about how we see art. Instead, the discipline is simply another way of studying brain functions under specific conditions.
Even though neuroaesthetics is still in its infancy, it is currently providing insight for both artists and scientists. Universities including the University of Washington, University of Amsterdam and the University of Copenhagen are even adding this new field to their research programs.
In the future, it is likely that neuroaesthetics will answer some lingering questions. This could include ‘how is looking at art different to looking at non-art objects’? Or even ‘why do we like art?’ As artists, we can benefit from this new research, as this kind of knowledge has previously been beyond our reach.