Saturday, December 12, 2015

Neuroscience, art and the aesthetic experience

On Thursday, 10 December 2015 I attended a debate between G. Gabrielle Starr and Alva Noë who addressed the question, Can neuroscience help us understand art? The debate was sponsored by the New York University Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness and held at the Casa Italiana to a packed, attentive audience. Directors of the Center, Ned Block and David Chalmers, posed other questions: Can understanding the brain reshape our conceptions of the arts? Is there a viable field of neuroaesthetics?

In attendance were my wife and our daughter, who is an artist. The lively and sometimes humorous debate was more like a conversation that, in spite of similarities between the perspectives of Starr and Noë, pointed to some sharp differences in their approaches to defining and understanding the aesthetic experience. Based on the amount of audience participation after the debate, those in attendance had strong reactions (both positive and negative) to both sides of the presentation.

What follows are notes I took during the talks; any errors in how I might represent the speakers’ positions are entirely my own. For more clarity and depth, I’d recommend reading, by Starr, Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience; by Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.

G. Gabrielle Starr, Seryl Kushner Dean of the College of Arts and Science at NYU and Professor of English, was the first to speak. On its most basic level in response to the debate question, her claim is that neuroscience can indeed help us engage with the arts. (In fact, Starr might use the word arts broadly, since some of her recent work deals with the neuroscience of aesthetic response to poetics and music.) Starr says her approach is probabilistic and therefore not necessarily focusing on one work of art or an individual. She gives us, instead, the story of art about individuals and cultures. What neuroscience can tell us about art deals with perception, emotion, and imagery. Especially with imagery, neurons associated with movement are activated, and Starr quoted William Empson who rightly says that poetry is a kinetic art.

Important for a neuroscientist would be delineating what neurons can tell us about art and an aesthetic experience versus an everyday experience. In art, we value what is unpredictable, Starr says. The aesthetic response is beyond preference or pleasure, a complex experience, and “often mixed in valence.” So what neuroscience tries to do is answer the question about whether or not there is something in common about experiences of art or what might unify aesthetic experience. Starr emphasizes that her work it is less about “special qualities” in art and more about “approaches.” So in lab/research work she does with a team subjects are asked not only what is liked but how much agreement there is about any object or perception. For example, most people will agree (in descending order) about facial expressions, followed by natural scenes, abstract images, paintings, and finally haiku. The conclusion is that “all visual beauty doesn’t get the same treatment” in the brain. Visual systems in the brain prioritize consistently, but higher order processes differentiate later.

Emotions play a part in the perceptual experience, but there is a difference between perception and feeling, where we can separate representation from feeling. Both routine and aesthetic emotions overlap in neural reference space. Concerning individual differences, there is much disagreement among aesthetic responders and, moreover, the agreement on art might be more about “the status of the liking” and less about the object itself. Starr spent some time talking about the brain’s default mode network, a resting state with few distractions or the focus on a task where the undertaking need not be specific, such as engagement with the arts. Similarly, the default mode network is implicated in theory of mind, self-reflection, and spontaneous cognition.

For Starr, an aesthetic experience is not necessarily first order and there is no single profile (a position shared with Noë). Neuroscience gives us information about the aesthetic experience so that we can move forward. Contrary to what some might suggest, the work of art does not disappear in any neuroscientific study – the participant does indeed experience the art. There is no natural space to appreciate art – that space can shift. Even with representations of art in books, we can still appreciate the images and have some type of aesthetic experience.  

Alva Noë is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Noë opened with a joke about how people mispronounce his name as “No” and how he does not like to be on the no-side of any debate, including this one. In other words, he does not epitomize “no” to the investigations of neuroscience in aesthetic experience, but more emphatically he is on the yes side of art.

Noë began with a selection from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (“I hear the trained soprano”). He used this poem, with a nice reading of it, to demonstrate how his focus is less about the neuroscientific explanation of art (the nuts-and-bolts of what happens where in the brain) and more about the complex experience of art. In this particular poem, for example, Whitman’s art is engaged with music so that art is engaged with other art. We need ideas, information, values, and beliefs to experience art. As another instance, Noë showed a slide of a Rodin sculpture. He followed this quickly with a slide of a Brâncuşi sculpture. Early in his career, Brâncuşi worked with Rodin, so the point is that art is in dialogue with art. It just so happens that these two sculptures were in close proximity in a Texas museum Noë visited. Noë admits that art has roots in our biology, but “not exclusively and not exhaustively.” Rather, there is a “cultural space” of practice and appreciation.

The reading and the sculptures brought Noë to philosophy and the puzzle of our being. Art or aesthetic experience is not just a stimulus to a response but affords us a wide array of experiences. The aesthetic experience is not fixed data points (as Starr agrees). Instead, an aesthetic experience is changeable and can wane, as part of the dialogue influenced by cultural experiences and biases. We can engage in a “dispute” about our disagreements, but the aesthetic experience has “no clear temporal boundaries.” Noë says that in the aesthetic experience there is no first order response; the aesthetic experience is consequent to the art (reflective) and more like an activity or process dependent on species and individual neural differences. At this point, Noë tried to make an analogy between the engagement of art and having a good meal, dependent more on reflection than on ingredients. (In the group discussion, this analogy, however, was questioned.)

Like philosophy, Noë says that “art unveils us to ourselves.” He is critical of any strategy to look for aesthetic experience in neural correlates. That is, he positions (akin to Starr) thought, intelligence, and understanding over perception (as in Semir Zeki). What is distinctive about art lies less in the object and more in the experience, says Noë. While neuroscience seems to hover over the trigger responses, art represents states like sympathy and empathy. In other words, the emphasis should not be on the trigger response but what we make of art and the aesthetic experience – how it helps us understand ourselves.

As an example, Noë recounted his experience of fully engaging with Andy Warhol’s soup cans in a museum – being confronted with true art – where others simply took selfies of themselves with the art as background. Noë was emphatic that there was a huge difference between standing with the art and years of having seen those same images represented in books. In this setting, says Noë , “works of art are problematic for viewers” since they do not know what to expect. He is therefore critical of neuroscience as “idealistic” in how it suggests that the world is made in one’s brain. Noë insists that we are looking for art in the wrong place. Art is not necessarily the object; it has more to do with the character of the experience (not really addressed by neuroscience). One does not “get it” just by looking.

All in all, there was an abundance of ideas and reactions, almost too much for me to have recorded in these few notes. Someone was filming the event, but I am not sure where (if at all) that tape might appear. The website for the NYU Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness is Here – and I do see video links for some past events.


-- Gregory F. Tague, Professor of English at St. Francis College and editor of ASEBL. [Information about my book, Art and Adaptation (noted among books in brief in the December 2015 Art in America) can be found Here, available from Amazon.]

Copyright©2015 by Gregory F. Tague

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