Neuroscience and art: a threnody



What is the functional purpose of the current trends of neuroscience? to produce understanding? or perhaps to produce better means of control? More to say; but first, a bit of prophesy:

“Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for? True,” he added, “they might ask for shorter hours. And of course we could give them shorter hours. Technically , it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any the happier for that? No, they wouldn’t. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four-hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness, that people felt constrained to take a holiday from them. The Inventions Office is stuffed with plans for labour-saving processes. Thousands of them.” Mustapha Mond made a lavish gesture. “And why don’t we put them into execution? For the sake of the labourers; it would be sheer cruelty to afflict them with excessive leisure. It’s the same with agriculture. We could synthesize every morsel of food, if we wanted to. But we don’t. We prefer to keep a third of the population on the land. For their own sakes–because it takes longer to get food out of the land than out of a factory. Besides, we have our stability to think of. We don’t want to change. Every change is a menace to stability. That’s another reason why we’re so chary of applying new inventions. Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy. Yes, even science.”

Science? The Savage frowned. He knew the word. But what it exactly signified he could not say. Shakespeare and the old men of the pueblo had never mentioned science, and from Linda he had only gathered the vaguest hints: science was something you made helicopters with, some thing that caused you to laugh at the Corn Dances, something that prevented you from being wrinkled and losing your teeth. He made a desperate effort to take the Controller’s meaning.

“Yes,” Mustapha Mond was saying, “that’s another item in the cost of stability. It isn’t only art that’s incompatible with happiness; it’s also science. Science is dangerous; we have to keep it most carefully chained and muzzled.”

“What?” said Helmholtz, in astonishment. “But we’re always saying that science is everything. It’s a hypnopædic platitude.”

“Three times a week between thirteen and seventeen,” put in Bernard.

“And all the science propaganda we do at the College …”

“Yes; but what sort of science?” asked Mustapha Mond sarcastically .

– Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World.”

Reviewing some articles concerning neuroscientific research on aesthetic receptivity (see below), several questions kept gnawing at the back of my mind – or some group of neurons in my brain. The first of these is, what is it we are even hoping to find in the neurosciences? I thought it was better understanding and medically useful information. But when I read that Columbia University’s Neurobiology Department’s mission “is to arrive at cellular and molecular explanations of development, behavior, and learning,” and then find that “research suggests that there may be a basis in neurobiology for wisdom’s most universal traits,”* Will we soon have ‘wisdom’ shunts plugged into our brains? Or (which is more likely) will we be given new ‘soma’ medications to reduce our anxieties, unhappiness – and dissent? I wonder what it is we’re really looking for in that 3 lb. bag of chemical goo that overburdens our skulls.

The second question that arose came from a frustrating sense of deja vu. I kept thinking that, although the terminology has changed, I seem to have seen much the same models, arguments, and even research and data, that I was seeing in the ’70s and ’80s. Unfortunately, I don’t have a library I can access to check this, and the internet is worthless for historical research of that kind; but really, despite the terminology, and despite promises of ever new ‘break-throughs,’ the field doesn’t seem to have advanced very far in the past thirty years.

A third problem I’m seeing in the general field for this discussion, is that we are now heavily invested (not only in focus but also lots of money) in lines of research that may be flawed at the base in their principle assumptions. If the computational theory of mind is false (as I believe), research based on it may tell us quite a lot about computers, and nothing about mind. If the brain functions holistically to generate the whole person as a system of responses (as I suspect), segmenting the physical material to find particular localities of response has potential medical value, but can’t possibly provide the ‘big picture’ that we might want from a materialist theory of mind. If cognition and its communication are not fundamentally representational (as some argue), tests devised to demonstrate they are, may only result in subjects providing desired reports. It’s not that the research isn’t useful; the question is whether it can get us what we want from it (which is what?). But we’re committed now, and so I don’t see us likely to pause to reconsider the basic questions here.

But if the basic questions of the research are not first themselves questioned, we may be chasing our tails here.

*; ironically, the sidebar assures me that a related article is “Spirituality Key to Chinese Medicine Success.”

To follow the remaining discussion, it would help the reader to please read (or at least scan) and consider the following research papers in the neuropsychology of response to perceived works of art (music, paintings, poetry): (Wilkins et. al, authors) (Graham and Redies) (Jacobs)

The most defensible is the study by Wilkins et. al., on the neurospsychology of song preference, because they never use the words ‘art’ or ‘aesthetics,’ it is clear they have no professional interest in what these terms signify, and confine themselves to neuropsychological responses to individually preferred songs, regardless of any greater social value in these songs. Bully for them.

On the other hand, the discussion concerning neurological response to visual imagery by Graham and Redies continually mis-deploy the term ‘art’ when it is clear they are merely talking about visual receptivity and response to images – again, regardless of any greater social value in these images. They pretend to be talking about, eg., “Mondrian, Pollock, and Van Gogh,” when they might just as well be talking about photographs in Natural Geographic.

The worst of the lot was Jacobs’ “Neurocognitive poetics.” I’ve never read through such a laughable confusion of terms and evaluative perspectives. Lacking any definition of poetry or literature, or what might delineate them from other forms of discourse; and lacking any means to determine value differences between differing texts or even differing genres (J.K. Rowling is as important to the study as E.T.A. Hoffman – indeed more so) – Jacobs cannot even say exactly what properly constitutes his field of research. If all of the studies his paper links to are along the same lines, then I suppose if they were printed on paper, they might provide kindling for the hearth; otherwise, they are just about rubbish.

The exceptions among Jacobs’ links here would be those works by theorists who have recognized value in non-neurological fields of study. However, these should give us pause. Roland Barthes could be coldly analytical in his semiotic dissection of a literary text; yet he was passionate in his reading of literature.  Jacobson and Levi-Strauss held very traditional values; in their work there is a (sometimes explicit) belief that they are tracing the development of linguistic and narrative structures through a generalized history (beginning with folk narratives) that at last arrives at what they believed to be the great Literature of Europe. This is of questionable application to other cultures; it is not that they lack a definition of Literature, but rather that their definition may be too narrow. They are culturally biased.  Without addressing such issues, the use made of their research, especially as applied to ‘neurocognition’ of ‘poetry,’ is questionable.  If we don’t examine ourselves – critically, reflectively – we have no right to examine others,

As we can see, the neuroscience inquiry into the reception of ‘art’ actually has little to do with art or aesthetics, and cannot even properly define those subjects as objects of study. When convincing (interesting and informative), they don’t even bother with such terms. But when neuroscientists deploy such terms, they do so uncritically, even unreflectively, apparently only to wheedle their way into a larger discourse that really has no use for them. Their ‘research’ then borders on pseudoscience.

There’s no such thing as “scientific aesthetics.” If some people (who may need counseling) want to pretend this, and can get grant money to research nonsense, then that tells us about the society in which we live. It tells us nothing about art.

If such neuroscientists cannot define ‘art’ or ‘poetry,’ then what the heck are they researching? Neuroscientists haven’t answered that question; as far as I can tell, they cannot,

I understand why they can’t see this – they’re getting money for research depends on vague, conventionally acceptable definitions of such terms. But we should demand more of science – precise objects of inquiry. What is the definition of such terms as ‘art’ and ‘poetry’ that their research supposedly investigates?

Why Van Gogh? Why not Norman Rockwell? The answer has to do with society, and collective judgments, not brain response. Such answers cannot be provided by neuroscience, but only through higher level descriptions, narrations, and explanations of social discourse.

We cannot understand the power or meaning of any art, whether the great paintings of Europe or the ritualized sculptures of Australian indigenous peoples, a) without first having some sense of what art is and how it means to us within a culture, and b) without knowing something of the culture in which it is produced.

What is this “power” of which we speak? What culture generates such terminology in reference to such artifacts?

The suggestion that neural reaction to visual stimuli will somehow decide the value in art is amusingly facile. When one one really investigates and comes to know – and truly appreciate – the different arts of different cultures, one could never take seriously such a hollow claim.


Composed from comments on another website, .


One thought on “Neuroscience and art: a threnody

  1. Nice post. I’d agree completely. Most of the time I have no understanding of what neuroscience thinks it’s doing, The Columbia University’s Neurobiology Department’s mission statement is so ludicrous it’s difficult to know what to say to it. When I first saw it I fell about laughing.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s