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Neuroscience: “Neuroaesthetics” mugs abstract art

In “Idle Chatter: This Is Your Brain on Art – Can neuroscience explain art? (The Smart Set , March 17, 2011), Morgan Meis recounts V. S. Ramachandran’s neuroscience theories that, he says, explains a lot about art:

Ramachandran identifies what he calls nine laws of aesthetics. Let’s look at one of them — law number two, which he calls Peak Shift — to get a sense of what neuroscience brings to aesthetics. Peak Shift refers to a generally elevated response to exaggerated stimuli among many animals. Ramachandran refers to a study in which seagull chicks were made to beg for food (just as they do from their mothers) simply by waving a beak-like stick in front of their nests. Later, the researchers pared down even further, simply waving a yellow strip of cardboard with a red dot on the end (adult gulls have a red dot at the end of their beaks). They got the same response. More interesting, and crucially for Ramachandran’s law of Peak Shift, is that the gull chicks become super excited if you put three red dots on the cardboard strip. Something in the mental hardwiring of the chicks says, “red outline on lighter background means food.” The wiring does not normally need to be more specific than that. It is enough for survival. So, the chick brains make the leap to interpreting the advent of several red outlines as being several times better. They go nuts.This fact, Ramachandran thinks, can give us some real, neurologically based insights into the appeal for abstract art. Ramachandran supposes that with abstract art, human beings have learned to tap into their own gull chick response mechanisms.

Meis, who runs an art commune in New York, feels that there is “genuine insight” here, noting that this truth will lead to “inevitable loss”:

He assures us, once again, that his non-reductionist approach to neuroscience will in no way diminish great works of art.[...]

He doesn’t know, he can’t know, what we will lose or what we will gain. And he is aware, as we are all aware in our heart’s heart, that we aren’t going to stop doing this anyway. We are going to go forward into the unknown in the quest to make art fully knowable and we’ll deal with the consequences when we’ve arrived, joyful in our accomplishments and sad, too, at the inevitable loss of all that has been left behind.

I would say that the loss had already occurred. By the time one finds the gull chick story terribly informative about the complex experience of art, one has already dipped below the horizon of understanding it. One is then in the position of a person with tools who can take a computer apart, but could never design or build one.

Loss of the very idea of design is not without cost.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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