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The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience

V.S. Ramachandran & W. Hirstein, Center For Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0109, USA.

We present a theory of human artistic experience and the neural mechanisms that mediate it. Any theory of art (or, indeed, any aspect of human nature) has to ideally have three components. (a) The logic of art: whether there are universal rules or principles; (b) The evolutionary rationale: why did these rules evolve and why do they have the form that they do; (c) What is the brain circuitry involved? Our paper begins with a quest for artistic universals and proposes a list of ‘Eight laws of artistic experience’ — a set of heuristics that artists either consciously or unconsciously deploy to optimally titillate the visual areas of the brain. One of these principles is a psychological phenomenon called the peak shift effect: If a rat is rewarded for discriminating a rectangle from a square, it will respond even more vigorously to a rectangle that is longer and skinnier that the prototype. We suggest that this principle explains not only caricatures, but many other aspects of art. Example: An evocative sketch of a female nude may be one which selectively accentuates those feminine form-attributes that allow one to discriminate it from a male figure; a Boucher, a Van Gogh, or a Monet may be a caricature in ‘colour space’ rather than form space. Even abstract art may employ ‘supernormal’ stimuli to excite form areas in the brain more strongly than natural stimuli. Second, we suggest that grouping is a very basic principle. The different extrastriate visual areas may have evolved specifically to extract correlations in different domains (e.g. form, depth, colour), and discovering and linking multiple features (‘grouping’) into unitary clusters — objects — is facilitated and reinforced by direct connections from these areas to limbic structures. In general, when object-like entities are partially discerned at any stage in the visual hierarchy, messages are sent back to earlier stages to alert them to certain locations or features in order to look for additional evidence for the object (and these processes may be facilitated by direct limbic activation). Finally, given constraints on allocation of attentional resources, art is most appealing if it produces heightened activity in a single dimension (e.g. through the peak shift principle or through grouping) rather than redundant activation of multiple modules. This idea may help explain the effectiveness of outline drawings and sketches, the savant syndrome in autists, and the sudden emergence of artistic talent in fronto-temporal dementia. In addition to these three basic principles we propose five others, constituting a total of ‘eight laws of aesthetic experience’ (analogous to the Buddha’s eightfold path to wisdom).

Art and the Brain

Semir Zeki, Wellcome Department of Cognitive Neurology, University College, London

The article defines the function of the visual brain as a search for constancies with the aim of obtaining knowledge about the world, and claims that it  is applicable with equal vigour to the function of art. We define the general function of art as a search for the constant, lasting, essential, and enduring features of objects, surfaces, faces, situations, and so on, which allows us not only to acquire knowledge about the particular object, or face, or condition represented on the canvas but to generalize, based on that, about many other objects and thus acquire knowledge about a wide category of objects or faces. In this process, the artist must also be selective and invest his work with attributes that are essential, discarding much that is superfluous. It follows that one of the functions of art is an extension of the major function of the visual brain. Indeed, philosophers and artists often spoke about art in terms that are extremely similar to the language that a modern neurobiologist of vision would use, except that he would substitute the word ‘brain’ for the word ‘artist.’

On Aesthetic Perception

Jason W. Brown, 66 E. 79th. St., New York, N.Y. 10021

The article explores conceptual, intentional, and emotional dimensions of art , drawing on ideas from process theory (in the tradition of Whitehead), clinical neuropathology and phenomenology. The interdependence of emotion and perception are outlined, with emphasis on the more general role of knowledge in guiding perception.

The Dance Form of the Eyes: What Cognitive Science Can Learn From Art

Ralph D. Ellis, Clark Atlanta University,

Art perception offers action affordances for the self-generated movement of the eyes, the mind, and the emotions; thus some scenes are ‘easy to look at’, and evoke different kinds of moods depending on what kind of affordances they present for the eyes, the brain, and the action schemas that further the dynamical self-organizing patterns of activity toward which the organism tends, as reflected in its ongoing emotional life. Art can do this only because perception is active rather than passive, and begins with efferent activity in emotional brain areas (e.g. hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus and anterior cingulate) which then motivates afferent processing (parietal imaging activity which finally, after a 1/3-second motivational/selective process is complete, resonates with occipital patterns, resulting in perceptual consciousness). The limbic system ‘categories’ that motivate the ‘looking-for’ of selective attention are categories of utility, to be understood in terms of emotional affordances and whole-organism affective meanings. Art plays with this looking-for, using it to make us engage in different afforded actions that relate to different limbic (emotional) categories. The drawings of children and of the artistically untutored reveal this structure when we fail to ‘draw what we see’, drawing instead what we conceptualize that we ought to be seeing. Art teaches us to get beyond this almost complete dominance of habitual categories, and to see things more freshly — both in the perceptual and in the emotive sphere. Rather than reinforcing our preconceptions, it forces us to see how they affect our view of reality.
 Because neither perceptions nor emotional responses are really passive ‘responses’ at all, art does not cause us to feel a certain way. Instead, we ‘use’ art for the purpose of symbolizing our emotions. Our most important feelings are not directly ‘about’ the perceptual objects that trigger them. The object in conscious attention during the feeling of an emotion is normally not the intentional object of the emotion, i.e., it is not the object in relation to which our actions could serve the purpose of the emotion. Emotions are not even triggered by simple ‘stimuli’, but rather by the meaning for us of a stimulus in a total context determined by ongoing and dynamical organismic purposes. Emotions arise from the total life process, which is a dynamical system — not as an isolated chemical event or a causal result of a simple stimulus. For this reason, emotions call not just for satiation or pleasure, but for explication; this is why art is different from entertainment or pretty decoration. Visual art affords not only a meaningful, self-directed dance of the eyes, but also a meaningful dance of this emotional explicating process.

The Emergence of Art and Language in the Human Brain

Erich Harth, Department of Physics, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13244- 1130 USA. Email:

Our brains are characterized by sensory pathways that are highly reflexive, allowing higher cortical centres to control neural activity patterns at peripheral sensory areas. This feature is characterized as an internal sketchpad and involves recursive interactions between central symbols and peripheral images. The process is assumed to be the fundamental mechanism underlying most cognitive functions. The paper attempts to portray the beginnings of art and language as natural extensions of these pre-existing internal processes, made possible by the greatly enlarged human prefrontal cortex. It views these highly social activities as originating in subjective, private discourse between the emerging self and its externalized expressions.

Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind

Nicholas Humphrey, CPNSS, London School of Economics, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK

The emergence of cave art in Europe about 30,000 years ago is widely believed to be evidence that by this time human beings had developed sophisticated capacities for symbolization and communication. However, comparison of the cave art with the drawings made by a young autistic girl, Nadia, reveals surprising similarities in content and style. Nadia, despite her graphic skills, was mentally defective and had virtually no language. I argue in the light of this comparison that the existence of the cave art cannot be the proof which it is usually assumed to be that the humans of the Upper Palaeolithic had essentially ‘modern’ minds.

Emotion and Phylogeny

Michel Cabanac, Département de Physiologie, Université Laval, Québec, Canada, G1K 7P4 Email:

Gentle handling of mammals (rats, mice), and lizards (Iguana), but not of frogs (Rana) and fish (Carassius) elevated the set-point for body temperature, i.e., produced an emotional fever, achieved only behaviourally in lizards. Heart rate, another detector of emotion in mammals, was also accelerated by gentle handling, from ca. 70 b/min to ca. 110 b/min in lizards. This tachycardia faded in about 10 min. The same handling did not significantly modify the frogs’ heart rates. The absence of emotional tachycardia in frogs and its presence in lizards (as well as in mammals), together with the emotional fever exhibited by mammals and reptiles, but not by frogs or fish, would suggest that emotion emerged in the evolutionary lineage between amphibians and reptiles. Such a conclusion would imply that reptiles possess consciousness with its characteristic hedonic dimension, pleasure. The role of sensory pleasure in decision making was therefore verified in iguanas placed in a motivational conflict. To be able to reach a bait (lettuce), the iguanas had to leave a warm refuge, provided with standard food, and had to venture into a cold environment. The results showed that lettuce was not necessary to the iguanas and that they traded off the palatability of the bait against the disadvantage of the cold. Thus, the behaviour of the iguanas was possibly produced, as it is in humans, through the maximization of sensory pleasure. Altogether, these results may indicate that the first elements of mental experience emerged between amphibians and reptiles.

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