A look into Neuroaesthetics
I was looking up at the clouds the other day, finding pictures where I could. It’s something I haven’t done for a while. Flooding me with memories of childhood, summer days, itchy grass and laughter. I noticed that in trying to interpret obscure images within the clouds I found myself remembering moments and images I had thought long forgotten. This is one of the reasons art holds such an appeal to me – it’s ability to trigger memories and emotions.
Our whole lives are filtered and interpreted by our brains. Just looking at one picture is a complicated journey, containing twists and turns all completed in half a second. From photoreceptors absorbing light, electrical signals traveling along neuronal pathways, through the thalamus and relayed to different processing areas of the brain. One of the pathways visual information can take is known as the ‘What?’ pathway. It is here that long-term memories can be activated by visual input. The potential memories are only brought to mind if the neurons are activated. So if an image is unknown, but has certain visual tags, it can spark up the correlating memories.
I’m getting a little into Neuroaesthetics here, the study of the brain in relation to aesthetics. Can we look into the brain to explore and understand our relationship with art? It’s a question that has gained popularity but not without some criticism. Including from neuroscientist Bevil Conway and musicologist Alexander Rehding. They have said “it is an open question whether an analysis of artworks, no matter how celebrated, will yield universal principles of beauty” and that “rational reductionist approaches to the neural basis for beauty … may well distill out the very thing one wants to understand.” (Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty) Both of these criticisms seem to have assumed that the aim is beauty. When I tend to agree with Brown and Dissanayake:
“Aesthetic emotions are unquestionably an integral part of the arts, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to characterize them. Thus, a narrow focus on aesthetic responses is ultimately a distraction from the larger picture of what the arts are about.”
I’m not interested in hearing a right/wrong manual for art and beauty – not that it would even be possible. I am interested in furthering a discourse on art. Perhaps as Brown and Dissanayake suggest the term should be Neuroartsology.
Another criticism findings as Matthew Rampley writes in ‘The Seduction of Darwin’. “…at best it merely adds an additional discursive layer; familiar aesthetic concepts are redescribed using the vocabulary of neurology.”
The idea that impressionism triggers a more emotional response is a familiar concept, however it is further explained with neuroscience. Patrick Cavanagh discusses it in “The artist as neuroscientist”:
“Brain imaging of subjects presented with faces expressing fear show that the amygdala (a centre of emotion) responds strongly to a blurry version of the faces. In contrast, areas responsible for conscious face recognition respond weakly to blurry faces and best to faces presented in sharp detail. Impressionist works may connect more directly to emotional centres than to conscious image-recognition areas because the unrealistic patchwork of brush strokes and mottled colouring distract conscious vision.”
That could be seen as a new description of an old concept, but knowing the why is a necessary step in understanding human behaviors and exploring art’s potential. With technology improving and more study there’s a lot of potential to find.
I’m just beginning my journey into Neuroaesthetics. I have a lot more reading ahead.