Sunday, January 07, 2018

Raymond Tallis on the sterility of neuroaesthetics

“An extreme expression of the faith of neuroscientism is the emergence of a so-called neuroaesthetics that looks to neuroscience to explain aesthetic experience. Neuroaesthetics has attracted adherents from many disciplines. Certain literary critics, musicologists, and art critics are excited by the idea that examination of the brain of a person enjoying a work of art will throw light on what art does, is, and means. Artists, they believe, are unconscious manipulators of our nervous systems, awakening particular regions of the cortex, or particular types of neurons, singly or in combination.

I first became aware of neurological approaches to literature when I read a Commentary in the Times Literary Supplement by the novelist A.S. Byatt (TLS, Sept. 22, 2006). She argued, on the basis of theories advanced by the neuroscientist Pierre Changeux, that the particular pleasure associated with John Donne’s poems was due to syntactic structures which made them especially effective in stimulating certain kinds of neurons; especially those associated with ‘reinforced link ages of memory, concepts, and learned formal structures like geometry, algebra, and language.’ When I researched the background to her article, I realised that Byatt was speaking for a vast congregation of practitioners of “neuroliterary criticism.” There is an equally thriving academic industry using neuroscience to explain why certain paintings give us pleasure. Many art critics have been inspired by the eminent neuroscientist Semir Zeki who, in Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (1999), attributed the distinctive effects of the paintings of Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, and the Fauves to their acting on different kinds of neurons in the visual pathways. Mondrian, apparently, speaks preferentially to cells in regions V1 and V4, whereas the Fauves stimulate V4 plus the middle frontal convolutions.

John Onians in Neuroarthistory takes neuroaesthetics further. He explains the propensity of art historians to espouse certain theories on the basis of the kinds of experiences they themselves may have had. These, he argues, will have shaped their ‘neural formations’ during their period of development. John Ruskin’s skill as an art critic and his emphasis on the relation of art to its environment is connected with his being driven around England in a specially adapted cart by his father who was a wine merchant: as a result ‘his neural networks will have increasingly predisposed him to reflect on the relation between art and the environment.’ The self-observation that made Ernst Gombrich’s art criticism so thoughtful was triggered by ‘the amount of time he would have spent in London waiting for and traveling on buses and underground trains’ during the Second World War ‘while the city was being destroyed around him,’ which would have reinforced certain connections in his brain. Onians grades art theorists of the past according to the extent to which they anticipate the theories that he and his fellow neuro aestheticians espouse. Aristotle, for example, is praised for seeing the importance of neural plasticity induced by repeated similar experiences. Appollonius of Tyana gets a pat on the back for ‘acknowledging the way in which the imagination, the emotions and the body are all linked’ which is, apparently, a discovery of modern neuroscience. The 19th-century German professor of architecture Adolf Goller is admired because Onians can link Goller’s observations on the effect of new styles of architecture with more recent research on the reinforcement of behaviour in pigeons and rats. Rarely can the past have been condescended to so comprehensively. It is disturbing that these often ludicrously tendentious ideas—the reductio ad absurdum of neuroscientism—are being advanced not by some mad autodidact on a park bench but by a serious academic. [….] — From a short article by Raymond Tallis, “The limitations of a neurological approach to art,” The Lancet, vol. 372, no. 9632 (July 5, 2008): 19-20. The full article is here.

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I have the temerity (or perhaps it’s impertinence) to suggest that neuroaesthetics (including neuro-art history and neuro-evolutionary aesthetics) is a field of study (a ‘relatively recent sub-discipline of empirical aesthetics’) that should disappear, as it has virtually nothing of significance or value to teach us should we have an abiding interest in or passion for (the) art(s), aesthetics, or the psychology and philosophy of art. This view is supported, in part, by examples from its literature alongside supporting arguments proffered by Raymond Tallis which starkly illustrate the “findings,” crudity, and faddish hype that render neuroaesthetics, in the beginning and end, a “sterile exercise.” Please see, in addition to the above, the material in his chapter, “Defending the Humanities” (the section, ‘Repairing the Canvas: Art on the Brain’), in Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen, 2011): 284-396.

Lest the reader unfamiliar with Tallis’s book be tempted to draw premature inferences from the title as to his general views on either the neurosciences or Darwin’s theory of evolution, I should note that Tallis was elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences for his research on clinical neuroscience, describing the knowledge gained and the “panoply of techniques that go under the name of ‘neuroscience’ … [as] some of the greatest intellectual achievements of mankind.” As for Charles Darwin and his scientific accomplishments, he has “no quarrel with Darwinism,” indeed, he writes that Darwin ”is the Newton and Einstein of biology rolled into one,” and while it is “astonishing” that Darwin was able to “arrive[] at his theory on the basis of comparatively little evidence,” “[t]he mass of information [in the natural sciences] that has been gathered since 1859 justifies [Richard] Dawkins’s assertion that Darwin’s theory should now be upgraded to a ‘theorum.’”


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