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Can Neuroscience Help Us Understand Art?


What is art? Why does it matter to us? What does it tell us about ourselves?

It's something of the rage these days to turn to neuroscience for answers.

Neuroscience, after all, it is widely believed, holds the key to our very nature as conscious beings. I've been skeptical of the neural approach. (See here, here and here; this is also a running theme of my book Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.) It's not that I deny that our ability to inspect and enjoy a painting, for example, depends on our brains. Of course it does! Our ability to see or experience anything depends on our brains. How is this supposed to help us understand what makes art special?

And as for aesthetic experience — our experience of value in works of art — in my judgment this is just too variable, too changeable, too unfixed, too liable to be affected by what we do before, during and after an encounter with an artwork, to be the sort of thing that can be understood at the level of the brain. Consider a comparison: A lot goes on in your brain when you eat dinner, but it's a far cry from this humble fact to the suggestion that we can find, in the brain, the secret to what makes your dinner party a success.

But neuroaesthetics — as the application of the concepts and methods of neuroscience to the study of art is sometimes known — is a booming enterprise. A particularly provocative and brilliant proponent of the value of the neural approach is G. Gabrielle Starr. Starr is a professor of English at NYU; she's been actively absorbed in empirical research on the neural basis of aesthetic experience in collaboration with the neuroscientist Edward A. Vessel and members of his lab. (Vessel has now moved from NYU to the new Max Planck Institut for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt. The recent establishment of this institute speaks volumes on the ascendency of the neural study of art.) Starr makes a strong case for their approach in her recent book Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience.

Starr and I were invited last December to NYU's Center for Mind Brain and Consciousness to face off in a debate on the question: Can neuroscience help us understand art? (She's first; I come on at 27:00.)

Can neuroscience help us understand art? You decide.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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