Both Neuroaesthetics and its Critics are Off Track

Alva Noë has an op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he rips into the young science of neuroaesthetics:

What is striking about neuroaesthetics is not so much the fact that it has failed to produce interesting or surprising results about art, but rather the fact that no one — not the scientists, and not the artists and art historians — seem to have minded, or even noticed.

Well, I minded and I noticed, but I’m also no one. I’m not a scientist or an artist or an art historian. I did, however, attend the a few of the initial international conferences on neuroaesthetics. But even though I am deeply fascinated by the idea of understanding art through understanding the brain, I stopped going to these conferences. I felt like the neuroaesthetics community was going down the path that wasn’t going to lead anywhere that would lead to any answers I had about art (What is art? How does it work?) anytime soon.

Mr. Noë seems to have the same frustration I did with the path this science is taking. But he reaches a different conclusion from me: he basically throws up his hands and suggests it’s probably hopeless:

For these reasons, neuroscience, which looks at events in the brains of individual people and can do no more than describe and analyze them, may just be the wrong kind of empirical science for understanding art.

I think that’s mistaken. I’ll try to explain why.

An example: one conference I decided to skip looked to be about examining brain scans of people in love. I’m not sure how and if love and art are related, and I’m skeptical of the usefulness of brain scans. I failed to see how that is going to tell us anything about the mechanisms of art, so I decided not to waste my time.

I’m a computer engineer. The computer analogy to using brain scans for understanding art would be trying to reverse engineer a piece of software by looking at which disk sectors are being accessed on a hard drive when that software is running. That information is almost useless. If you want to reverse engineer anything–a brain, a computer, a piece of software, a transistor, whatever–you need to know exactly two things: the inputs, and the outputs.

If you know what the inputs are (in this case, works of art) and the outputs are (human reactions to works of art), then you can try to reverse engineer the rest. If your inputs and outputs match the original, even if your new machine works in a completely different way from the original, congratulations, you’ve reverse engineered the product.

A reverse engineering of art must begin not with a cataloging of the mechanisms of art, but of the inputs and outputs. That’s where I think the neuroaesthetics community has gone astray.

That’s not to say that an cataloging of the mechanisms of the brain isn’t useful–it is. Usually–but not always–knowing some of the mechanisms of the original product can help you figure out how to complete your reverse engineering. It can help you better categorize your inputs and outputs. But if you’re focused exclusively on understanding the mechanisms and and not on understanding the inputs and outputs, you’re not going to get anywhere.

As I said, in this field, I’m a nobody. I’m not an academic or an artist or a neuroscientist. I’m just a guy. I’m no one. But I’ve done a lot of thinking about it over these past seven years, and I’m convinced that the key to reverse engineering how art works in the brain lies in the difference between the two types of memory in the brain: declarative memories and non-declarative (or associative or procedural) memories. Understand that mechanism, and reverse engineering the rest will fall right into place.

It all seems clear and obvious to me. A neuroaesthetics community that uses an effective approach to the problem of how art works can probably give us lots of useful and interesting information. I’ve blogged about this for seven years now, I still feel as if I’m the only one who gets it. I’m not getting the idea across. I’m a lonely community of one. I was hoping that reading Daniel Kahneman’s recent book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” would shed a little light on the issue for others, but I don’t think it does. Art doesn’t really come up in his book. But the declarative/non-declarative dichotomy I’ve been talking about is pretty much the same System 1/System 2 dichotomy that Kahneman talks about–I think.

Perhaps if the professionals aren’t going to figure it out, that maybe I’ll just have to write a book myself, where I lay out the whole thing, my understanding of how it all works.

That idea scares me, though. What if I spend all that time to write that book and still nobody gets it? Or worse, I’m dead wrong about it? Hmm…

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