Your Brain on Art: The Emerging Science of Neuroaesthetics Probes What Art Does to Our Brains

If you’ve fol­lowed debates in pop­u­lar philo­soph­i­cal cir­cles, you’ve sure­ly heard the cri­tique of “sci­en­tism,” the “view that only sci­en­tif­ic claims are mean­ing­ful.” The term doesn’t apply only in defens­es of reli­gious expla­na­tions, but also of the arts and humanities—long imper­iled by sweep­ing bud­get cuts and now seem­ing­ly upend­ed by neu­ro­science.

We have the neu­ro­science of music, of lit­er­a­ture, of paint­ing, of cre­ativ­i­ty and imag­i­na­tion them­selves…. What need any­more for those pedants and obscu­ran­tists in their ivory tow­er aca­d­e­m­ic cubi­cles? Sweep them all away for bet­ter MRI machines and sta­tis­ti­cal pro­grams! Who, gasp the oppo­nents of sci­en­tism, would hold such a philis­tine view? Maybe only a straw man or two.

For those in the emerg­ing field of “neu­roaes­thet­ics,” the goal is not to vivi­sect the arts, but to observe what art—however defined—does to the brain. Neu­roaes­thet­ics, notes the Wash­ing­ton Post video above, the­o­rizes that “some of the answers to art’s mys­ter­ies can be found in the realm of sci­ence.” As Uni­ver­si­ty of Hous­ton Pro­fes­sor of Elec­tri­cal and Com­put­er Engi­neer­ing Jose Luis Con­tr­eras-Vidal puts it in the video below, “the more we under­stand the way the brain responds to the arts, the bet­ter we can under­stand our­selves.” Such under­stand­ing does not obvi­ate the mys­tery of art as, the Post writes in an accom­pa­ny­ing arti­cle, “the domain of the heart.”

The spec­ta­cle of per­form­ing artists, writ­ers, and musi­cians wear­ing skull­caps cov­ered with wires while in the midst of their cre­ative acts may look ludi­crous to us lay­folk. The Uni­ver­si­ty of Hous­ton takes this research quite seri­ous­ly, how­ev­er, appoint­ing three visu­al artists-in-res­i­dence to work along­side many oth­ers on Pro­fes­sor Contraras-Vidal’s ongo­ing neu­roaes­thet­ic projects, which also include dancers and musi­cians. In addi­tion to study­ing artists’ brains, the NSF-fund­ed project has record­ed “elec­tri­cal sig­nals in the brains of 450 indi­vid­u­als as they engaged with the work of artist Dario Rob­le­to in a pub­lic art instal­la­tion.”

The Post sum­ma­rizes some of the pos­si­ble answers offered by this kind of research: arts such as dance and the­ater stim­u­late our desire to expe­ri­ence intense emo­tions togeth­er in a group as a form of social cohe­sion. See­ing live performances—and sure­ly even films, though that par­tic­u­lar art form is slight­ed in many of these accounts—trig­gers a “neur­al rush…. With our brain’s capac­i­ty for emo­tion and empa­thy, even in the word­less art of dance we can begin to dis­cov­er meaning—and a sto­ry.” This brings us to the impor­tance our brains place on nar­ra­tive, on move­ment, the “log­ic of art” and much more.

For bet­ter or worse, neu­roaes­thet­ics is—at least at an insti­tu­tion­al level—in some com­pe­ti­tion with those branch­es of phi­los­o­phy clas­si­cal­ly con­cerned with aes­thet­ics, though often the two endeav­ors are com­ple­men­tary. But using sci­ence to inter­pret art, or inter­pret the brain on art, should in no way put the arts in jeop­ardy. Seri­ous sci­en­tif­ic curios­i­ty about the old­est and most uni­ver­sal of dis­tinc­tive­ly human activ­i­ties might instead pro­vide justification—or bet­ter yet, fund­ing and pub­lic support—for the gen­er­ous pro­duc­tion of more pub­lic art.

via The Wash­ing­ton Post

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Infor­ma­tion Over­load Robs Us of Our Cre­ativ­i­ty: What the Sci­en­tif­ic Research Shows

The Neu­ro­science of Drum­ming: Researchers Dis­cov­er the Secrets of Drum­ming & The Human Brain

How Bud­dhism & Neu­ro­science Can Help You Change How Your Mind Works: A New Course by Best­selling Author Robert Wright

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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