This Is Your Brain on Art

Can neuroscience explain art?



Twenty percent of art can now be explained by neuroscience. That, at least, is what V.S. Ramachandran thinks. Ramachandran is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Distinguished Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is, in short, one of the top neuroscientists around at the moment. He is also a clear and engaging writer. His 1999 book, Phantoms in the Brain, brought him much popular attention and his most recent book, The Tell-Tale Brain, is doing more of the same.


  • The Tell-Talle Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V.S. Ramachandran. 357 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

Much like Oliver Sacks, his friend and admirer, Ramachandran comes to many of his insights about the human brain by observing its dysfunction. Problems in the brain can tell us meaningful things about what is going on in a normal brain. Take, for example, people who claim that one of their arms belongs to someone else due to damage to their brain; they become lessons in how complex and multi-layered are the functions of consciousness. We seem to ourselves, when everything is going well, to be fully unified “selves.” In fact, when we look at various disorders of the mind, we see how tenuous is the ground upon which that feeling rests. In looking at the disordered mind, Ramachandran gets the impression that he is looking “at human nature through a magnifying glass.”

That is also why Ramachandran devotes two whole chapters of his book to the subject of art and aesthetics. Making art and appreciating art seems to be universal in the human species. From prehistoric cave paintings to modern conceptualism, where you find human beings you also find art. At the same time, no one has ever been able to give a very good definition of art, to explain in any rigorous and satisfying way what it is that human beings are up to when they make art and when they like art. It is a subject that touches on the strangeness of consciousness, the felt sense of being human that all of us experience every day but that is so resistant to explanation or analysis. Art is thus a kind of Holy Grail to those who seek to explain the murkiest aspects of human consciousness. But it is this very fact — the experiential and intangible nature of art — that would seem to preclude the possibility that science can intrude into the domain of art. As Ramachandran himself admits, “One is a quest for general principles and tidy explanations while the other is a celebration of the individual imagination and spirit, so that the very notion of a science of art seems like an oxymoron.”

That is, indeed, more or less the problem. Theories of art have proliferated for as long as we’ve had philosophy and theory. All of them have tried, in one way or another, to elucidate general principles. The problem, as Ramachandran understands it, is that we simply haven’t known enough about how the brain operates. Now, he says, that situation has finally changed. He claims specifically that, “our knowledge of human vision and of the brain is now sophisticated enough that we can speculate intelligently on the neural basis of art and maybe begin to construct a scientific theory of artistic experience.”

Speculate he does. Ramachandran identifies what he calls nine laws of aesthetics. Let’s look at one of them — law number two, which he calls Peak Shift — to get a sense of what neuroscience brings to aesthetics. Peak Shift refers to a generally elevated response to exaggerated stimuli among many animals. Ramachandran refers to a study in which seagull chicks were made to beg for food (just as they do from their mothers) simply by waving a beak-like stick in front of their nests. Later, the researchers pared down even further, simply waving a yellow strip of cardboard with a red dot on the end (adult gulls have a red dot at the end of their beaks). They got the same response. More interesting, and crucially for Ramachandran’s law of Peak Shift, is that the gull chicks become super excited if you put three red dots on the cardboard strip. Something in the mental hardwiring of the chicks says, “red outline on lighter background means food.” The wiring does not normally need to be more specific than that. It is enough for survival. So, the chick brains make the leap to interpreting the advent of several red outlines as being several times better. They go nuts.

This fact, Ramachandran thinks, can give us some real, neurologically based insights into the appeal for abstract art. Ramachandran supposes that with abstract art, human beings have learned to tap into their own gull chick response mechanisms. Abstract artists are thus “tapping into the figural primitives of our perceptual grammar and creating ultranormal stimuli that more powerfully excite certain visual neurons in our brains as opposed to realistic-looking images.”

That is the argument. I, for one, suspect that there is a genuine insight here, mixed with a battery of oversimplifications that could be picked apart by any art historian. Ramachandran, to his credit, admits that fact. He does not want to be seen as a reductionist and his points about Peak Shift are not meant to exhaust the possible reasons for the emergence of and enthusiasm for abstract art. Neuroscience is not meant to replace other standpoints from which we appreciate and analyze art. Ramachandran thinks, in general, that neuroscience can make significant contributions to aesthetics without otherwise encroaching on the humanities. Our love of Shakespeare, he argues, is not diminished by our understanding of universal grammar. “Similarly, our conviction that great art can be divinely inspired and may have spiritual significance, or that it transcends not only realism but reality itself, should not stop us from looking for those elemental forces in the brain that govern aesthetic impulses.”

Why the qualifications then? Why does Ramachandran continuously feel the need to reassure us that we can gain knowledge about art from neuroscience without losing anything? It seems to presuppose, at the very least, that the other option is a possibility, that looking for (and finding) elemental forces in the brain that govern aesthetic impulses could, in fact, transform our actual experience of art.

Perhaps past experience comes into play here. We are broadly aware of the fact, for instance, that there has been a vast accretion of knowledge about the natural world and about ourselves over the last two centuries. We are also broadly aware that the understanding we have gained has not been neutral. It has not left the world as it was. The understanding has transformed our relationship to the world, to one another, to ourselves. Maybe that is a simple way to describe the sense of crisis that has always been a constituent part of the experience of modernity. As we understand differently, we act differently. And how you act is, in some fundamental way, how you are. So, we have changed in who we are. We have become different. How different? No one can say, exactly. Has it been for the better or for the worse? Opinions are divided. The feelings of anxiety, though, are real and they’ve always been real.

The subtitle of Ramachandran’s book is “A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human.” The underlying assumption of that subtitle, I am suggesting, is that the quest is a fundamentally benign one. Philosophy, Aristotle said many years ago, begins in wonder. We want to know. We have always wanted to know. That is part of what it means to be human. Ramachandran thus presents his book as both a study in the things that make us human, and a contribution to the practice of being human. But is there another possible subtitle to Ramachandran’s book lurking in the shadows? Would it be something like, “A Neuroscientist’s Quest to Utterly Transform What It Means to Be Human?”

There is an interesting aside during Ramachandran’s discussion of Peak Shift. He wonders, after discussing his principle of ultranormal stimuli and its relation to abstract art, whether our brains are simply hardwired to appreciate art. This raises the question, however, of disagreement in the appreciation of art. If we are analogous to chick gulls in our gut reaction to certain abstract forms, mustn’t it then be the case that everyone actually likes, in some deep way, the sculptures of (for instance) Henry Moore? Ramachandran goes for the surprising answer here. He supposes that maybe everyone does. They just don’t know it, or they suppress that root “liking” with their higher cognitive functions, adjusting what they “like” to specific cultural mores or other similar considerations. Ramachandran goes even further. He proposes that we could actually test this hypothesis out. We could hook people up to sensors that test whether they are having a root response to Henry Moore’s sculptures (even if they say they dislike the sculptures) and find out whether we share some basic and primitive response to the work. If nothing else, it could prove that basic universal aesthetic laws do apply, and that they play a role in our appreciation for art.

One can make easy fun of such examples. There is something creepy about the idea that we are forced, in some sense, to admit a liking for Henry Moore that we would otherwise deny. But I propose that we take it seriously for a moment. If, in rigorous test after rigorous test, neuroscientists such as Ramachandran can begin to establish many of these universal laws and fine tune the analysis of how they operate, is it possible that this would have no effect on how we then continue to appreciate and even to produce art? Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe the Shakespeare analogy holds. Maybe there is something so solid, so intransigent to our humanness and to the way that we experience the world no amount of such knowledge can shake it apart.

I suspect, though, that we have no idea what the implications of discovering the laws of aesthetics would be. Ramchandran basically agrees. The final sentence in the last chapter of his book explicitly says it. He is speaking more broadly about the project of explaining human consciousness in total, but the thought applies to the specific realm of art. “We don’t know,” he writes, “what the ultimate outcome of such a journey will be, but surely it is the greatest adventure humankind has ever embarked on.” Probably he is correct about this. To understand our own origins and to understand exactly how we got to be the kinds of creatures we are — this is the ultimate quest. It is also appropriate that such enthusiasm, such optimism guide the adventure.

No adventure, especially an adventure of such magnitude, has ever been embarked upon without a driving optimism. And no adventure has ever proceeded for very long without melancholic notes creeping into the affair. Thus the need, I think, for Ramachandran to pause along the way and reassure his reader (and himself?) that the outcome of this whole affair will not transform the object of his quest — “what makes us human” — into something unrecognizable. There is a passage in Ramachandran’s discussion of his ninth law of aesthetics (Metaphor) where he begins to wax eloquently about the Nataraja, The Dancing Shiva sculpture that is India’s greatest icon. It is clear that the sculpture is deeply meaningful to Ramachandran. Perhaps it evokes his childhood. Maybe he once had an intense experience with the sculpture. He doesn’t tell us. Instead, he takes a moment to explain the statue, to interpret it. He mentions that Shiva is shown stomping on a demon, Apasmara, who represents the illusion of ignorance. What is this illusion?

It’s the illusion that all of us scientific types suffer from, that there is nothing more to the Universe than the mindless gyration of atoms and molecules, that there is no deeper reality behind appearances. … It is the logical delusion that after death there is nothing but a timeless void. Shiva is telling us that if you destroy this illusion and seek solace under his raised left foot (which he points to with one of his right hands), you will realize that behind external appearances (Maya), there is a deeper truth.

Finally, Ramachandran breaks away from his reverie. He apologizes for straying too far afield. He assures us, once again, that his non-reductionist approach to neuroscience will in no way diminish great works of art. He wants it to be the case, and you can feel the desire in the passage, that the insights gained from neuroscience and his interpretations of the power of the Nataraja are deeply compatible. Maybe so, maybe so. Maybe the insights of neuroscience will “actually enhance our appreciation of [art’s] intrinsic value.” But the insistence strikes me as conveying a lingering sadness that Ramachandran never acknowledges. The sadness lingers in the between-spaces of his sentences, in the silent moments that fill up the pauses as he moves from one argument to another. He doesn’t know, he can’t know, what we will lose or what we will gain. And he is aware, as we are all aware in our heart’s heart, that we aren’t going to stop doing this anyway. We are going to go forward into the unknown in the quest to make art fully knowable and we’ll deal with the consequences when we’ve arrived, joyful in our accomplishments and sad, too, at the inevitable loss of all that has been left behind. • 17 March 2011

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at