Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Neuroaesthetics: Reconnecting the Sciences with the Arts

"Art disturbs, science reassures." 
~ Georges Braque

Over the weekend, one of the smart science people I follow on Twitter posted a link to a new Web site called The Beautiful Brain that "illuminates important new questions about creativity, the mind of the artist, and the mind of the observer." The site was founded by Noah Hutton, a recent graduate of Wesleyan whose focus is art history and neuroscience, and Samuel D. McDougle, a musician and neuroscientist.

"Neuroaesthetics," the study of how science interacts with the creation and appreciation of art and beauty, is one of the site's major interest areas. Wikipedia — the only source I could find that offers a simple, plain English explanation — says this: "Neuroesthetics uses the techniques of neuroscience in order to explain and understand the aesthetic experiences at the neurological level. The topic attracts scholars from many disciplines including neuroscientists, art historians, artists, and psychologists." For a longer, more lyrical description, visit Neuroaesthetics.org.

"While I recognize the necessity for a basis of observed reality...true art lies in a reality that is felt."
~ Odilon Redon

As a writer and former fine arts major who has spent my life around writers, artists, actors and musicians, my first reaction to the concept of neuroaesthetics was, what's in it for creative people? After reading an essay ("The Promises and Pitfalls of Neuroaesthetics") and listening to a podcast about the Copenhagen Neuroaesthetics Conference, I'm pretty sure the answer is "not much" — but there is a great deal in it for scientists.

The Copenhagen meeting was the most recent of several efforts to revive the cross-disciplinary thinking that, inspired by towering Renaissance polymaths like Leonardo and Michaelangelo, led to the Age of Enlightenment. (Eminent biologist and theorist E.O. Wilson wrote about this in his 1998 book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge.) However, as Noah Hutton's essay admits, in Copenhagen "the empire of brain science, the enchanted land of aesthetics, and the private club of the artist" were often moving in separate orbits.
"An artist cannot talk about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture."
~ Jean Cocteau

There is no denying that the sciences have become isolated from one another and from other forms of understanding. Changing this, bringing scientists back in contact with one another and the rest of the world, is a very worthy goal. As the study of laboratory scientists mentioned here yesterday illustrates, cross-disciplinary dialogue can solve problems that cannot be solved by one discipline alone.

However, artists and scientists have completely different approaches to the world. I would venture to propose that artists have been creating things in pretty much the same ways forever, while scientists — in their pursuit of results than can be duplicated — have become more and more process-bound and isolated. In November 2009, neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer wrote a fascinating article titled "Lying and Creativity" on his blog The Frontal Cortex. It mentions an fMRI study of jazz musicians indicating they deactivate their pre-frontal cortices when improvising. Is that what Einstein was doing when he sat in his garden — not in a laboratory — imagining his world-changing ideas?

"I don't paint things. I only paint the difference between things."
~ Henri Matisse

I wish Hutton and McDougle well. Scientists have much to learn from artists, and their goal is an important one. Some suggestions:
  • Become better communicators. Some of the material on The Beautiful Brain is downright tedious.
  • If you want to learn from artists, take off your lab coats, put aside your analytical instincts and preconceptions and follow their lead. 
"The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."
~ T.S. Eliot

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