In Which the Grad Student Loses her Temper

One of the signs I use to reassure myself that I am an adult and not merely a kid masquerading as a grown up so that they let me into academia is that I read the news.

Not only do I read the news, I argue with it. (This is actually one of the biggest problems of living alone after two+ years of marriage – all the news articles that I vehemently disagree with and need to vent about are relayed to an empty room or have to be put on hold until my husband and I speak.) Most of these articles (excepting any time Roger Cohen copies and pastes a previous op-ed about Israel into a new one; those are just terrible and I’ve given up on reading him since he never says anything useful and NEVER says anything new) are mild annoyances; flies buzzing around an orchard of fruitful thoughts, if you will, but ever so often something comes along that just completely drives me insane and I feel the need not only to rant, but to systematically outline everything that is wrong with the original argument.

So here goes.

Yesterday, the Times published an opinion piece in “The Stone” which is their forum for contemporary philosophy. The article was entitled “Art and the Limits of Neuroscience” and the tagline was “Why does art move us? Why does it matter? The answers are not likely to be found by studying the brain.”

So, okay, yes I knew I was going to lose my temper the second I saw it, but scholarship requires a certain amount of masochism and so I read it anyway.

For those interested, the link is here – as well as on my facebook page, along with the preliminary rant.

This, of course, is the well-thought out and less rabid version.

I’m going to take his assertions against the field of “neuroaesthetics” (which, first of all, is not technically “the project of studying art using the methods of neuroscience.” It is the project of using neuroscientific research to try and better understand how art affects us and why. It is interested in the human experience of aesthetics and how different forms of art tap into that.) and try and explain why I disagree with them.

Point 1:

“What stands in the way of success in this new field is, first, the fact that neuroscience has yet to frame anything like an adequate biological or “naturalistic” account of human experience — of thought, perception, or consciousness.”

Yes, that would be because it’s a NEW FIELD. Remind me again, how long did it take biology to formulate an adequate account of genetics? Neuroscience has only been possible as a field for 30 years and the brain is still fairly uncharted territory. Which, I should note, has not stopped neuroscientists from framing possible accounts of human experience. Wilson, who is the evolutionary biologist I spoke about last week, discusses the state of neuroscience ten years ago and the theory that the brain works by consolidating experiences, affect and memory into possible scenarios, then making decisions about what to do based on which of those scenarios has what appears to be the best result. Semir Zeki, who is actually quoted in this article, spends a full 2/3s of his newest book talking about his idea of how consciousness mediates and is mediated by our perceptions. There is serious research being done, particularly in art, that looks at how our neurons are able to recognize objects we’ve seen before when they’re presented from a different angle–apparently we create “car neurons” that have learned to fire only when we see a car, regardless of angle–I’m not going to spend too much time on this but the research is SO COOL and we’re really beginning to discover how exactly the brain turns what it sees into ideas.

So, yes, this is baby field, but it’s one making huge strides towards a biological account of human experience. Yes, consciousness is still a problem, but it’s one for philosophy too and they’ve been at it WAY longer than neuroscience has.

Point 2:

“But once we say this, it would be simpler, and more accurate, to allow that it is people, not their brains, who think and feel and decide. It is people, not their brains, that make and enjoy art. You are not your brain, you are a living human being.

“We need finally to break with the dogma that you are something inside of you — whether we think of this as the brain or an immaterial soul — and we need finally take seriously the possibility that the conscious mind is achieved by persons and other animals thanks to their dynamic exchange with the world around them (a dynamic exchange that no doubt depends on the brain, among other things). “

Fine, I will take your assertion that consciousness is achieved by the meeting of mind (i.e. brain) and environment. So what? The mediation still occurs in the brain – perception, sensation, memory, affect are all still consolidated, mediated and stored IN THE BRAIN. The only point you’ve succeeded in making here is that you were wrong – you, as a representative of the population, are still incredibly uncomfortable with the idea that you are your brain. You want to find a way to raise consciousness up and out of the brain. You might find the idea “I am my brain” to be reductive, but given that it’s the seat of the dynamic exchange and said exchange COULD NOT HAPPEN without the brain, I fail to see how this has materially changed our understandings. If this is a semantic game, by all means, play to your heart’s content, but don’t use it to take the high ground in a scientific debate when your framing of the question of consciousness has no material effect on the approach to understanding it.

Or, to put it another way, well done, dear sir. You’ve stated the obvious.

Point 3:

“Neural approaches to art have not yet been able to find a way to bring art into focus in the laboratory. As mentioned, theorists in this field like to say that art is constrained by the laws of the brain. But in practice what this is usually taken to come down to is the humble fact that the brain constrains the experience of art because it constrains all experience. Visual artists, for example, don’t work with ultraviolet light, as Zeki reminds us, because we can’t see ultraviolet light. They do work with shape and form and color because we can see them.

“…But there is a problem with this: An account of how the brain constrains our ability to perceive has no greater claim to being an account of our ability to perceive art than it has to being an account of how we perceive sports, or how we perceive the man across from us on the subway. In works about neuroaesthetics, art is discussed in the prefaces and touted on the book jackets, but never really manages to show up in the body of the works themselves!”

Have you ever tried to paint in an fMRI? Give it another thirty years and we’ll be watching artists art (I know, art isn’t really a verb. I want it to be one, though) in a way that is meaningful to neurological study.

Also, you’re being ridiculously reductive here. Taking Zeki’s most obvious example, one he concedes as being so himself and calling that the sum total of the field is ridiculous. Neuroaesthetics, for example, can identify why it is that Piet Mondrian’s work, despite being lines and blocks on a page, is visually satisfying. It recognizes that the brain has certain ideals towards which it tends–certain perceptual leanings–and art that matches those leanings is more likely to FEEL satisfying. Our brains are good at spotting certain visual elements – Ts, Xs, because they aid in defining a 3D world, so a painting with those elements in prominence will, interestingly enough, cause the limbic system (the reward center) to fire because our brains have evolved to reward us for being perceptive. Perception is an adaptive behavior. For more information on this, I recommend V. S. Ramachandran’s article on “The Science of Art” and, of course, Semir Zeki again. You will find both their works filled with examples of art and explanations of why we favor a certain TYPE of artistic rendering over another or even over a photograph of the real thing.

So please don’t base your criticism of the field on one example that does not do what you wish it to when you could have chosen at least 3 others that DO, in fact, address questions of preference.

Point 4

“Some of us might wonder whether the relevant question is how we perceive works of art, anyway. What we ought to be asking is: Why do we value some works as art? Why do they move us? Why does art matter?  And here again, the closest neural scientists or psychologists come to saying anything about this kind of aesthetic evaluation is to say something about preference.

“…Again we find not that neuroaesthetics takes aim at our target and misses, but that it fails even to bring the target into focus.”

Oh, for heaven’s sake, your problem with the field is that it doesn’t ask the questions you want it to ask? Really? Your objection is that a field entitled neuroAESTHETICS is focused on questions of aesthetics rather than defining a philosophy of art?

As my mother would say, tough noogies.

Look, first of all I find the idea of separating art, beauty and preference to be silly. Second of all, I suggest, once again, that you read Zeki’s book where he outlines a systematic explanation for what it is that drives us to create art and what it does for the human soul (Briefly – art is what happens when the idealized concepts of the world we have in our brains don’t match reality. If we have “car neurons” that create a concept of “car” in our minds, then our minds hold a sort of abstract, ideal “car” as the concept that all other cars are judged by. Now extend that idea to the way we view the human form, the experience of happiness, a tree. We create art to try and bring that inner vision into the outer world). You’re entitled to disagree with him, but since he actually DOES provide an understanding for how and why art moves us (and even why it moves us differently), it seems kinda silly to complain that neuroaesthetics lacks this particular ability.

No, neurology may never provide a philosophy of art. It’s not trying to. It’s trying to provide an account of the experience that comes from viewing and creating art and, through that experience, understand what it is about humans that makes them respond the way they do. You may not be interested in it, but I guarantee you that many other people, such as myself, are.

Point 5

The rest of the article is really not worth my time because it is a short attempt to reframe the study of art from a philosophical perspective, as if that is, somehow, incommensurate with the brain. However…

“For these reasons, neuroscience, which looks at events in the brains of individual people and can do no more than describe and analyze them, may just be the wrong kind of empirical science for understanding art.

“Far from its being the case that we can apply neuroscience as an intellectual ready-made to understand art, it may be that art, by disclosing the ways in which human experience in general is something we enact together, in exchange, may provide new resources for shaping a more plausible, more empirically rigorous, account of our human nature.”

I love this, “Can do no more than describe and analyze”. How else does one reach understanding? Yes, that’s what it does originally, but what neuroscience points to is HOW and WHY. How do we see art,what parts of the brain are activated, what path does the neuronal firing take are just a few examples. And, on that note, what exactly are you proposing we do instead? If we do not describe our experiences and analyze them, what else IS there?

And, okay, yes, looking at art as explaining human experience is cool, but it requires FIRST an understanding of human experience which, guess what, is in the realm of neuroscience and biology. I do see what you want to do and I sympathize with your desire to use art as a springboard to explain ourselves, but without an understanding of HOW this thing we all our selves exists, what it is about the BRAIN that makes the exchange you are interested in possible, you are at an empirical dead end. Nothing you wish to do will be possible, in the end, without neuroscience. There is no understand of human nature that does not begin in the human being, in the seat of consciousness in, as we said earlier, the brain.


I think I feel better now. Or possibly more tired. Is anyone else amused that the first thing I do when I finish writing my papers is write a dissection of someone else’s writing?

It has the appeal of familiarity. Now, I’m going to go read a book about science.



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5 responses to “In Which the Grad Student Loses her Temper

  1. Uuuuuuuggggh, people who start panicking the second science gets all up in their art piss me off. It’s the same rage that raises my hackles when I get all scientifically logical about some fictional character or world and the other person I’m talking to is like, ‘lolol why do you care about it making sense, it’s just fantasy/fiction/scifi!’

    What the hell is wrong with combining art and science? And why the HELL are most people so goddamn freaked out whenever someone likes both or puts both together? It’s almost at the level of a taboo, I’ve noticed…

    • I think, and this is just me speculating and should be taken with the obvious grain of salt that entails, there are two elements to the “Eww, you’re getting your science all over my art!” response.
      1) Art is transcendent. Transcendent things cannot be explained. Ergo, if you explain art, it is no longer transcendent so it cannot be art. If you buy into the idea that art can be explained by that which also explains human beings, it’s “just like everything else” and then there’s no art and the world is a bleak and horrible place.
      Well, yes, is my response. Of course it’s just like everything else. Humans made it and isn’t so cool that we can now begin to think about why? What makes art special shouldn’t be something outside of humanity, but something within us. As far as I can tell, the neurological “whys” of art just make it cooler.
      It’s just a perspective I don’t get.

      2) Wait, if you can explain why art affects me, then the brain is just a stupid computer. If I’m susceptible to neurological explanations, you can predict what I will do and I have no free will and we’re all just machines and…
      Right, clearly I have no respect for this position. Free will means the capacity to choose and it is independent of someone’s still-almost-entirely-nonexistent ability to guess what you will do in a situation. And it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the sheer beauty and complexity of the brain. It’s an illogical position, so illogical I can barely argue against it, other than by saying “Your jump from points A to zeta confuse me.”

      There may be other things that add up to that opinion, and I would be interested if anyone has any ideas (even from those who feel this way, I promise I’ll stop being dismissive).

      • 1) Oh, ‘if you explain it it’s no longer beautiful’ is such BULLSHIT. Every time I learn something new about the world (brinicles! cold seeps! coral spits out its guts on other coral to fight over territory! the kraken is a species of giant squid!) I get MORE excited about it, and think it’s even MORE gorgeous and wonderful than before. I feel like the deliberate ignorance out of this sense of ‘explanations are ugly’ is just another face of anti-intellectualism.

        2) Oh man, you know, the idea of ‘we have no free will’ is actually something that an entire Batman villain is based on. Jervis Tetch is so goddamned interesting to write, because of this….

  2. JLan

    ” If we have “car neurons” that create a concept of “car” in our minds, then our minds hold a sort of abstract, ideal “car” as the concept that all other cars are judged by.”

    So apparently Aristotle’s metaphysics were accurate from a human point of view?

    • Yes, actually, Zeki explicitly notes the similarity between PLato’s ideals and his formulation of brain concepts, except that in Zeki’s terms, there is no “outside reality” and the ideals differ from person to person. I have THE thing that I think of when I think car and you have THE thing that you think etc. but they are not the same thing.

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