Can neuroscience explain our relationship with art?
By Euan Mackay
It seems there’s nothing neuroscience can’t do. Promoted as a panacea, neuroscience has been tipped as the future of understanding the human condition. We live in the era of fMRI, where it is possible to investigate brain activity in response to external stimuli. As such, researchers increasingly look at all schools of knowledge through the lens of our neurology. The “neuro” prefix has been haphazardly slapped onto all manner of disciplines: neuroethics, neuroeconomics, neurophilosophy, neuromarketing, neuropolitics.
The phenomenon is deeply reminiscent of the cultural legacy of psychoanalysis. Seen as an educated alternative to self-discovery by religion or spirituality, and coated with a quasi-scientific patina, the theories of Freud and Jung entered the public consciousness via the films of Hitchcock and Woody Allen, as well as major works of philosophy and literary criticism. The allure then was the same as it is now: to better know ourselves and each other.
It is understandable then that, as with psychoanalysis before it, neuroscience is being used to aid our understanding of art. The field of neuroaesthetics seeks to use quantitative biomedical techniques as well as qualitative methods to elucidate the mysteries of why we create. But is neuroscience the right tool for the job?
The artistic mind dissected
The creative process is the stuff of myth. Central to Western tradition is the image of the tormented artist, who suffers madness and depression in order to create transcendent works. Neuroscience seems to reinforce the link between mental disorders and creativity. Personality traits associated with vulnerability to schizophrenia have been found to predict a person’s creativity. First degree relatives of patients with anorexia, bi-polar and schizophrenia are over-represented in creative fields. On a neuroanatomical level, the inability to suppress the precuneus area of the parietal lobe is typical in schizophrenics and also is associated with increased creativity. However, it is greatly debated whether these quantitative measures of creativity are representative of the artistic experience.
Neuroaesthetics seeks to determine if our love of art is innate. Are we simply like Gabriel von Max’s Monkeys as Judges of Art?
Perhaps more interesting is the study of established artists who have suffered neurological disorders. The American artist Wiliam Utermohlen, following his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease in 1995, painted a series of self portraits that chart his deterioration. The series of works becomes increasingly abstract and chaotic as Utermohlen’s Alzheimer’s affects both his motor skills and perception, and the works turn into a measure of the progression of the disease itself. A study that sought to look at the variability of words used in the novels of Agatha Christie found a huge decrease in her later works. It was then discovered that this decrease in vocabulary was likely linked to Christie’s unpublicised dementia; the author’s disease mirrored unknowingly in her writing. German painter Lovis Corinth suffered a stroke which damaged his right hemisphere. His works following the injury showed subjects with the left side of their faces left indistinct, exhibiting altered visual processing. It has even been controversially suggested that Van Gogh’s pre-expressionist style of waves and swirls are due to visual distortions from an undiagnosed schizophrenic condition.
Of course, neuroaesthetics has also been criticised for it’s reductive view of art. There are fMRI studies where works of art the brain finds “pleasing”, i.e promote activation of pleasure regions, are said to be of artistic merit. This simplifies the vast range of emotional responses people feel when they encounter a powerful work, and neuroaesthetics too often conflates beauty and value.
Neuroaesthetics may be able to teach us a thing or two, but it still has a lot to learn.