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Experiencing Art: It’s a Whole-Brain Issue, Stupid!

Arthur Shimamura, professor emeritus, psychology and neuroscience | July 27, 2013

We love art. We put it on our walls, we admire it at museums and on others’ walls, and if we’re inspired, we may even create it. Philosophers, historians, critics, and scientists have bandied about the reasons why we enjoy creating and beholding art, and each has offered important and interesting perspectives. Recently, brain scientists have joined the conversation, as it is now possible to put someone in a MRI scanner and assess brain activity in response to viewing art or even creating it (e.g., jazz improvisation). With such exciting new prospects, budding intellectual fields such as “neuroaesthetics,” “neuroarthistory,” and “neurocinematics” have cropped up.

I applaud these attempts to integrate science with the humanities. In the end, art is an experience, and as such neuroscience may be useful in explaining the biological processes underlying it. One feature that is often ignored, however, is the role that knowledge plays. We never experience art with naïve eyes. Rather we bring with us a set of preconceived notions in the form of our cultural background, personal knowledge, and even knowledge about art itself. In large measure, what we like is based on what we know. When we accept the fact that our art experience depends on a confluence of sensations, knowledge, and feelings, it becomes clear that there is no “art center” in the brain. Instead, when we confront art, we essentially co-opt the multitude of brain regions we use in everyday interactions with the world. Thus, with respect to “neuroaesthetics,” the question, “How do we experience art?” can be simply answered as, “It’s a whole-brain issue, stupid!”

We can, however, go further in developing a science of aesthetics, as the brain is not a homogenous blob of neurons. Different regions serve different functions, and over the past two decades, neuroimaging research has advanced our understanding of the biological bases of many mental functions to the point that it has completely revolutionized psychological science.  What has become clear is that for a thorough analysis of any complex mental process, including our appreciation of art, we must characterize how neural processes interact in addition to where in the brain they occur. With respect to art, I suggest that when our sensory, conceptual, and emotional parts of our brain are all coordinated and extremely aroused—say 11 on a scale of 10—we experience that “wow” feeling, as one might have while standing in front of Michelangelo’s David or Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone.

On a recent visit to Paris, I had several “wow” moments at the Jeu de Paume gallery where a retrospective of Lorna Simpson works is being held. I was familiar with Simpson’s photographic works, though primarily through book reproductions. At the exhibition, her photographs come alive as they are large and lusciously detailed.

Cloudspace, Lorna Simpson

Cloudspace, Lorna Simpson

Even more provocative were her video installations, particularly Cloudscape, 2004, in which a man stands and whistles a haunting melody while an ethereal haze blows around him. Half way through the video, the scene shifts subtly, which makes one consider the conceptual underpinnings of the work. I won’t reveal the nature of the change, but one can view it at Lorna Simpson’s website (though at the exhibition the video display is life-size).

Whenever we experience a work of art, we must consider how it stimulates our sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Yet you might ask, can the firing of neurons really tell us about the way we appreciate a Leonardo, Picasso, or Simpson? Do we even know what an “art” experience is? There are certainly limits to current brain imaging technology, and there may even be inherent limits in the degree to which science can contribute to our understanding of art and aesthetics. Yet by considering a multidisciplinary approach that fosters interactions among philosophers, historians, scientists, and artists themselves, we may be able to gain a better understanding of the joy of art. In addition, by evaluating such a universal and distinctly human practice, art may tell us more about brain than the other way around.

This blog originally posted on the Oxford University Press site.



Comments to “Experiencing Art: It’s a Whole-Brain Issue, Stupid!


    I was lucky to attend the Getty’s exhibit Gustav Klimt, The Magic of Line. One of the most amazing pieces was the Oil Sketch for Medicine, one of the three paintings representing Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence Klimt commissioned for the grand reception hall at the University of Vienna. The painting was controversial and never hung, and has since been destroyed.

    I was overwhelmed by complex emotions viewing this wonder of art. I become self conscious about the tears forming so I looked around me.
    Instead of embarrassment I found people equally engrossed. We looked at each other with empathy and caring, it was a momentary relief from the harsh judgements of an often cruel world. We spoke openly about our amazement that a drawing could convey so deeply our shared human condition, the need to transcend suffering.

  2. As a painter myself for about 60 years and a Professor of Art for 40 these matters seem to me very relevant about the experience of art for us all, layman and artists alike. Fairfield Porter said that what art has is “vitality” and vitality cannot be measured but is felt, just as with us as humans, as our vitality is not simply the combo of test results.
    He also said that for the artist attentiveness is key, both to the experiences that prompt the work (from within or outside of us) and the unfolding of the work as it is made. I find him to be on the mark as these are things that I feel deeply too.
    What makes neuroscience no so curious for me is that we are able to “see” the activity within the brain with the new tools available. Knowing how multifaceted the response is to the experience of art, and how deeply it effects us is useful to reinforce the value of the experience itself.
    John Dewey’s book Art AS Experience told us a long time ago that the value of art was in how it moved us, not the object itself alone. Since as the author said we bring our own knowledge and history with us, we can see (or not) what is in front of us. This has been confirmed by anthroplogists who show photos to folks who have no idea what it is, and they can not see the image as one of themselves. I hope that more is learned about our “human experiences” via the studies by neuroscientists since we have a yearning for explainations. Again Fairfield Porter said that we live in an age of explainations and art can not be explained (it maybe described and certainly felt) so what I hope we can discover with science is that our experiences are complex and deeply personal and help us appreciate the variety among us, as we struggle with “diversity” and how to deal with “others”. Thanks for sharing this research.

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