Sunday, September 8, 2013


Given my longstanding interest in the arts and in the brain you’d think I’d be interested in something called neuroaesthetics, wouldn’t you? Well, in principle I am. In practice, I’ve moved on, or back, whatever. I really have to get down to analyzing and describing particular works.

Still, if the idea of neuro aesthetics excites you, where would you go online to find out more? Well, you could go where I go, to the Wikipedia. As I already aware of much of the material mentioned in that article (mostly Zeki, Ramachandran) I went right to the list of external links.

I don’t know whether Semir Zeki is responsible for coining the term, but he’s probably the researcher most identified with neuroaesthetics. His institute has a website where you’ll find lots of stuff, including links to publications (and not just from his lab), and Zeki’s blog.

The International Network for Neuroaeathics appears to have a wealth of material, including links to articles (theory, visual arts, music, dance, facial attractiveness, expertise, design, and neurophysiology), books, and media coverage.

Here’s a useful critique of this emerging field: Conway BR, Rehding A (2013) Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty. PLoS Biol 11(3): e1001504. This passage from the conclusion has special resonance for me:
The field will benefit from developing models relating observations from the humanities to the careful neuroscience that has uncovered computations at cellular resolution within the value-judging structures of the monkey brain. These structures, not coincidentally, are analogous to those identified in fMRI studies of beauty in humans. Some neurons within these structures encode the value of the choices on offer, while others encode the value of the selected choice. Moreover, the neurons adapt on different timescales, displaying “menu-invariant” firing at short timescales and adaptable behavior on longer timescales. This adaptation may account for our ability to make choices across vastly different scales, for example from a restaurant menu in one instance and from houses offered for sale in the next instance [48]. It seems entirely reasonable—even likely—that these neurons are also implicated in the thorny task of deciding what is beautiful. Reformulated in this way, neuroaesthetics is decoupled from beauty and can exploit advances across a range of empirical neuroscience, from sensory encoding to decision making and reward.
This business of time-scales will come up later in this post, where I reference a “perspectives” piece by Son Preminger.

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience lists Brain and Art as a research topic. When you click on the Articles tab you get a list of articles. For example, here’s a promising review article, Perceptual and physiological responses to Jackson Pollock’s fractals (2011), which has the good sense to begin by developing a rigorous description of Pollock’s paintings (following an account of naturally occurring fractals – hello Mark Changizi) and then moves on to eye-tracking studies, skin-conductance (as an index of relaxation), and EEG. On first glance – I’ve not actually read the paper – this appears to be a first-class piece of work, the sort of thing that would lead me to re-evaluate my attitude toward neuroaesthetics. Another review article, Searching for roots of entrainment and joint action in early musical interactions, looks promising:
When people play music and dance together, they engage in forms of musical joint action that are often characterized by a shared sense of rhythmic timing and affective state (i.e., temporal and affective entrainment). In order to understand the origins of musical joint action, we propose a model in which entrainment is linked to dual mechanisms (motor resonance and action simulation), which in turn support musical behavior (imitation and complementary joint action). To illustrate this model, we consider two generic forms of joint musical behavior: chorusing and turn-taking. We explore how these common behaviors can be founded on entrainment capacities established early in human development, specifically during musical interactions between infants and their caregivers. If the roots of entrainment are found in early musical interactions which are practiced from childhood into adulthood, then we propose that the rehearsal of advanced musical ensemble skills can be considered to be a refined, mimetic form of temporal and affective entrainment whose evolution begins in infancy.
Son Preminger raises a very important point in his opinion piece, Transformative art: art as means for long-term neurocognitive change: “This review will discuss the molding and transformative aspect of arts, examining how repeated and on-going experience of arts may alter cognitive, emotional, and behavioral patterns as well as their underlying neural circuits.” After all, THAT’s why societies have art, to mold perceptions and behaviors.

Let me end with a note of caution. Without doing any investigation whatever, we know that the brain does art, just like the brain does science, accounting, gymnastics, gardening, and everything else it is that humans do. How much do we increase our knowledge by learning that looking at this kind of painting “lights up” these three patches of cortex? Not much. That tells us something about the brain, but not all that much about art.

And then there’s the way we think about what those patches of tissue are doing, a problem with lots of work in neuroscience, not just neuroaesthetics. Here’s the opening of an old post debunking the idea of pleasure centers in the brain:
Sydney Lamb begins Pathways of the Brain with a story about his daughter (p. 1):
Some years ago I asked one of my daughters, as she sat at the piano, "When you hit that piano key with your finger, how does your mind tell your finger what to do?" She thought for a moment, her face brightening with the intellectual challenge, and said, "Well, my brain writes a little note and sends it down my arm to my hand, then my hand reads the note and knows what to do." Not too bad for a five-year old.
Lamb goes on to suggest that an awful lot of professional thinking about the brain takes place in such terms (p. 2):
This mode of theorizing is seen in ... statements about such things as lexical semantic retrieval, and in descriptions of mental processes like that of naming what is in a picture, to the effect that the visual information is transmitted from the visual area to a language area where it gets transformed into a phonological representation so that a spoken description of the picture may be produced....It is the theory of the five-year-old expressed in only slightly more sophisticated terms. This mode of talking about operations in the brain is obscuring just those operations we are most intent in understanding, the fundamental processes of the mind.
I agree with Lamb whole-heartedly.
Observing the nervous system in action is very difficult, so difficult that creating and using the technology seems emphasized at the expense of thinking about what the nervous system does. At that point the inner child seems to take over At that point the inner child seems to take over and we get simple-minded stories about passing messages and information from place to place.



  1. I was struck by this issue when trying to write up a scene from a play I have acted in and used as an audition speech. Done it countless times both publicly and when under intense observation and scrutiny in a different processes.

    What made me laugh was thinking how voice notes in the theater work. Its working well when you get the terse comment, I have no notes to give, but the language used when you do get them is not dissimilar to what you are describing as the result of theorizing yet here its ruthlessly practical.

    Language is such a clunky means of describing such things, at a working level level you don't have to waste time describing the parts that work. That's rather obvious and its not the parts that work you have to focus on, the language has to work here.

    Language and terms are the minefield here along with the emotive impact the subject seems to have on people.

  2. "Language is such a clunky means of describing such things, at a working level level you don't have to waste time describing the parts that work."