Neuroscience: Is There Anything It Can’t Do? (guest post by Ryan Calo, CIS)

I almost laughed out loud when I read Jonah Lehrer’s mediation on neuroscience and art (Unlocking the Mysteries of the Artistic Mind, Psychology Today July/August 2009).  The gist is that neuroscience—which has yet entirely to explain how memory works—may be on the verge of unraveling the human response to art.  Great art’s ability to evoke the sublime or challenge expectations amounts, apparently, to a series of readily explicable tricks.

Take cubism, for instance.  It turns out we’re not really responding to Picasso’s bold challenge to sequential representation or some still deeper current of imagination.  Rather, Picasso is using “careful distortion” such as emphasis or exaggeration to “intensify reality.”  Art, in other words, is an optical illusion, and artists the fledgling “neuroscientists” who first figured this out. (Cats apparently introduce a subtle whine to their purring that our brains find it difficult to ignore.  Behold!  Cats are neuroscientists.)

The position Lehrer synthesizes is the modern day equivalent of saying that pushpin is as good as poetry.  It is utterly inadequate as an account of our relationship with visual art.  Even if the allure of Cézanne’s minimal Mona Lisa could be explained through the insight that “[t]he mind delights in filing in blanks,” what of Magritte’s Ceci Nes’t Pas Une Pipe?  Or what about Duchamp’s Mona Lisa?  Does Duchamp exploit the “neural mustache bias”?

Maybe I’m over-reading Lehrer.  Maybe the idea is that neuroscience is to art what physics is to tennis.  Andy Roddick couldn’t tell you much about friction or momentum, but these phenomena sure make it difficult to return his serve.

If so, “neuroaesthetics” confuses mechanism with meaning.  And it probably doesn’t add much even there: everyone knows that certain techniques of art, such as perspective, trick the brain in some way.  Knowing the exact mechanism cannot resolve any central “mystery” of art.

The brain is ridiculously complex and good neuroscientists spend a lot of time learning about it.  This cannot leave much room for the study of art.  Maybe neuroaesthetics should focus on unlocking the nagging mystery of, say, the placebo effect, and leave art its little mustache.

-Ryan Calo

3 Responses to Neuroscience: Is There Anything It Can’t Do? (guest post by Ryan Calo, CIS)
  1. Really excellent point about confusing mechanism with meaning. To all interested in a deep understanding of what counts as explanations in neuroscience, I recommend Carl Craver’s “Explaining the Brain.”

    True explanatory power is something that is often glossed-over in the various “neuro-” marriages. It is important to keep asking where that explanatory power lies and what it adds to what specific kind of understanding one is after.


  2. Thanks. I don’t mean to imply that neuroscience yields no insights when applied to another discipline—it does, and sometimes very important ones. I mean only that neuroscience does not provide anything resembling a thick description of that discipline or its concerns.


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