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Experiencing art: it’s a whole-brain issue, stupid!

By Arthur Shimamura


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!”

Cloudscape, 2004 by Lorna Simpson. All rights reserved.
Cloudscape, 2004 by Lorna Simpson. All rights reserved.

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. 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.

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.

Arthur Shimamura is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and  faculty member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 to study links between art, mind, and brain. His new book is Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder (Oxford University Press, 2013). He is also editor of Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies (Oxford University Press, 2013). Further musings can be found on his Psychocinematics blog, or his previous OUPblog posts.

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