The Neuroaesthetics of Word and Image: A Valid Approach?

“What is art?” “What does art reveal about human nature?” Alva Noë, a philosopher at CUNY’s Graduate Center, posed these rhetorical giants among several others in a New York Times Opinionator blog, “Art and the Limits of Neuroscience,” in December, 2011.[1] With a critical eye toward theorizing these questions and their answers “in the key of neuroscience,” Noë hammers in particular on the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, that is, “the project of studying art using the methods of neuroscience.” At issue for Noë is the fundamental assumption, promoted by neuroscientists such as Semir Zeki of University College London and historians of art such as John Onians, that the laws of the brain play a role in governing artistic production. In other words, what’s fundamentally at issue here is the notion that biology can and does affect the processes and expressions of culture, and that such influence may be measurable. As Noë sees it, “neuroscience has yet to frame anything like an adequate biological or ‘naturalistic’ account of human experience – of thought, perception, or consciousness.”

The day after Noë’s post, a point-by-point response came from Noah Hutton, who founded the website The Beautiful Brain two years ago in order to “explore the very pursuits [Noë] deems misguided.”[2] In Hutton’s critical estimation, neuroscience and neuroaesthetics, however nascent in their development they may be, are but some among a variety of ways to evaluate art critically. This answers Noë’s charge that proponents of neuroaesthetics advance it as the only valuable way to look at art. Hutton demonstrates that Noë has unfairly attributed such an exclusive approach to the scholars under critique:  in a study on the brain and kinetic art, Zeki writes, “… in creating his art, the artist unknowingly undertakes an experiment in which he studies the organization of the visual brain,” and while it may be possible to relate the experience of kinetic art to specific parts of the brain, he does “not mean to imply that the resulting aesthetic experience is due solely to the activity of V5 but only that V5 is necessary for it” (emphasis mine).[3] So, too, in an interview Hutton conducted with Onians in 2009 (linked to his website), the art historian states, “The more I learned about neuroscience the more I discovered that there were some areas of knowledge that were particularly helpful to art historians…in the humanities, we can use the material in the way we use all the other knowledge and theoretical frameworks in the humanities. We’re not making scientific claims about our work. We’re saying, ‘I have a hunch about how this may help me’.” I leave aside for now the many other details of Noë’s and Hutton’s arguments, but encourage anyone interested to digest both postings in full, for they offer much that is richly thought-provoking, and broadly relevant to the range of work we do as Classicists.

I turn instead to a related debate that arose at my lunch table at CHS in the fall, which seemed instantly to ignite intellectual passions. We discussed whether the brain can guide, form, or otherwise influence articulations of human experience—whether in the literary or visual arts or the enactment of religious ritual, for example—such that common or even universal patterns of such expression can be identified across otherwise quite different cultural contexts; some answered unequivocally in the affirmative, others vehemently denied the possibility, and no common ground was recovered. This polarizing topic is of great interest to me because for some time I have been considering the hypothesis that the mechanisms of the human brain might have something interesting to contribute to our understanding of word-image relationships. I am intrigued, for example, by the cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene’s theory of “neuronal recycling” and its role in the human brain’s adaptation to the process of writing: “Our cortex did not specifically evolve for writing—there was neither the time nor sufficient evolutionary pressure for this to occur. On the contrary, writing evolved to fit the cortex. Our writing systems changed under the constraint that even a primate brain had to find them easy to acquire.” Thus, he explains, “sheer luck gave us a cerebral network that links visual language areas and is plastic enough to recycle itself and recognize the shapes of letters.”[4] In other words, the same area of the brain that reads, termed the “letterbox” by Dehaene, is also responsible for object recognition and other kinds of visual processing. In the first stages of reading, the visual system attempts to decode words as if they were objects or faces. This may help explain, at least in part, the phenomenon of aesthetically-informed Greek inscriptions. But why must the potential for the brain’s biology to have affected the symbiosis between words and images detract from other vitally important factors?

The assumption that such scientific exploration—by no means fully conclusive or without its own points of vulnerability—inherently undermines the importance of specific cultural context, or that biological and cultural factors need be mutually exclusive, strikes me as unnecessary and unsatisfying. Even if we do accept, for example, that “the first written scripts used a whole gamut of shapes that physiologists have since found to be coded by single neurons in the primate’s visual cortex,”[5] this is clearly not a complete explanation of, for example, the aesthetics of the very earliest writing on sherds from Eretria, or of nonsense inscriptions on late-sixth-century Attic pots used in the symposium, since it neglects their particular social and historical contexts (each, of course, different from the other). So, too, to understand Jon Sarkin’s word-image compositions as merely the product of his cerebral trauma would be to neglect his long interest artistic movements such as Abstract Expressionism or the personal and emotional responses to the artists whose names he includes amongst his images, which he attests to in interview.

But, I see no reason why one method of study need threaten the other: why can’t underlying features of our neurobiology inform our modes of cultural expression, and vice versa? Don’t we stand to derive a more complete and satisfying picture if we see how biology and culture might work in tandem? Indeed, Noë’s critique of neuroaesthetics does allow for the value of bringing art and empirical science into conversation, and concedes that art does “reflect our human biology.” And we are also in agreement that dynamic exchange with the world around us creates our conscious minds, and not simply the brain in a cultural vacuum. Thus I suggest that we see both the brain and one’s immediate and cultural context at work as combined (and inextricable?) forces in the production of any cultural expression, including making or consuming art. Surely, a comprehensive study of an interdisciplinary mixed-media phenomenon should employ a range of interdisciplinary critical approaches, and not just those within the humanities.

I close, then, with an answer (however unsatisfactory) to the griphos I posed in my first blog posting, “What do ancient Greek inscriptions and a chiropractor’s cerebral hemorrhage have in common?”: some will say “nothing,” others “everything,” but in the very least “something” seems very likely to me.



[3] Zeki, S. and M. Lamb. 1994. “The Neurology of Kinetic Art.” Brain 117: 607-636.

[4] Dehaene, S. 2009. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. Viking. Quotes from 150 and 172, respectively.

[5] Ibid., 184.