An Introduction to Neuroaesthetics: The Neuroscientific Approach to Aesthetic Experience, Artistic Creativity, and Arts Appreciation
by Jon O. Lauring, Editor
Museum Tusculanum Press, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2014
436 pp., illus. 15 b/w, 5 color plates. Paper, $50.00
Reviewed by Ian Verstegen
University of Pennsylvania
Neuroaesthetics needs no introduction today but it does need elaboration. Buoyed by a tacit understanding of just what neuroaesthetics means, we find within its study a mlange of studies that range from brain imaging with tenuous connections to art, to evolutionary psychological concerns, to good old fashioned psychophysics, usually without too much reflection on the nature of art, explanation or how everything fits together. The book under review does not shake this tendency but it does succeed in bringing together a number of approaches to different artistic phenomena with relatively good coverage at a reasonable price. It seems ideal for a textbook.
The book aims for comprehensiveness so it begins with a historical introduction and treats different areas of the arts. Marcos Nadal, Antoni Gomila and Alejandro Gàlvez-Pol review the history of neuroaesthetics. Jelmut Leder and Pablo Tinio present a basic framework for shape preferences. Editor Jon Lauring gives a "backdrop" to the theoretical and methodology of neuroaesthetics. Alumit Ishai reviews his research on face perception, and in particular its distributed (and not localized) nature in the brain, and in line with other contributions deals with intersubjectivity and self-perception and monitoring. Nicolai Rostrup investigates environmental neuroaesthetics, linking action centers of the brain with hippocampal functions. Jens Jjortkjær reviews the tonal structure of music and its usage of brain centers associated with language, and others centers (amygdyla) associated with musical feeling. David Miall proposed to link experiences of literariness with "suggestive parallels" in neuroscience. Torben Grodal and Mette Kramer's essay extends Grodal's well-known work on mirroring action to the realm of sociality, where such skills of attunement are heightened by the film genres of romances and melodramas. Beatriz Calvo-Merino and Julia F. Christensen reflect on neuroaesthetics and dance. Bartlomiej Piechowski-Jozwiak and Julien Bogousslavsky review brain damage and art. Finally, Oshin Vartanian reviews fMRI studies of drawing, story writing and improvisation. The book treats most important topics and is accompanied by a very detailed glossary.
In a short review I can only note some basic themes and impressions. Above all, there is varied involvement with neuroscience, beginning with the historical survey in which Fechner, Dan Berlyne's new experimental aesthetics and evolutionary psychology are featured prominently. Some of the chapters are more or less experimental psychology and the contribution of neuroscience is not highlighted consistently. Of course, these are problems for neuroaesthetics more generally. Within the volume, only David Miall is self-reflective about the possibilities offered by the neuroaesthetic paradigm. He asks first whether neuroscientific studies "merely supplement what we already know or if they offer genuine insight that corrects or develops existing knowledge" and secondly says "the theories that guide our neuropsychological investigations should be based where possible in our literary understanding" (263). Perhaps significantly Miall has been a long time integrator of art and psychology.
Scientists can see which colors, shapes and environments I might "prefer." This can be useful for creating soothing interiors, say, for medical patients. But what is aesthetic about it? Writing in 1952 about experimental psychophysical studies of preferences, Arnheim wrote, "Some studies of this type can be considered useful as groundwork for a more adequate dealing with essential problems, but they are harmful when they take the place of true understanding" (Toward a Psychology of Art, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966, p. 20). Until we figure out what we are searching after, neuroaesthetics might better be called neuroaesthesis for the time being.