Beauty and the Biological

Whether or not a work of art is “good” is a highly subjective judgment, one which varies almost infinitely between cultures and within them over time. And yet, there seems to be something universal in a desire for something that pleases the senses, some underlying concept of beauty that is shared by all humans throughout history. Immanuel Kant was one of the first thinkers to make this kind of argument, going against many subjectivist thinkers of his time. In The Critique of Judgment, Kant put forth the notion that our very basic aesthetic judgments are hardwired into our brains, so to speak, and are more or less the same for everyone. “The beautiful,” he says, “is that which, apart from concepts, is represented as the object of a universal delight” (Kant, 15). It is a lofty claim, but one that is nonetheless worth investigating.

First, a clarification. Kant’s use of words like “delight, “pleasing,” and indeed, even “beauty” makes his argument appear to be a narrow one, as these words are often tied in with notions of happiness and peace. Of course, it is important to remember that effective works of art can often be those which elicit feelings of uneasiness, fear, and even disgust in their beholders. So, to say something is aesthetically pleasing is rather to say that it is aesthetically engaging, and that the emotional and cognitive stimulation it produces in the beholder is inherently rewarding. While judgments of taste may differ widely from person to person, Kant posits the notion of a “common sense” of what is beautiful that underlies these judgments (25). And this common sense, he argues, “is not to be taken to mean some external sense,” that is, something inherent in the beautiful object itself, but is nonetheless an invariable foundation of all of our judgments of taste (26).

But why is this so? This is a question that persists even today. Indeed, it has been more than two centuries since The Critique of Judgment was published, and we are still arguing about the questions it raises. However, since it would go against all of our pretenses of progress to admit this, what was needed at the turn of the twenty-first century was a shiny new moniker for the phenomenology of beauty. And so, in the 1990s, neurologist Semir Zeki of University College London coined the term “neuroaesthetics,” and it is one that has since been a topic of much contention between and among neuroscientists and aesthetic theorists alike.

What researchers in the field of neuroaesthetics are searching for are the biological underpinnings of aesthetic appreciation. The question for them is not “What is art?” but “How exactly do we enjoy it, and why?” And the answer, they claim, can be found in the ways in which the human brain processes sensory information. With functional magnetic resonance imaging, electrodermal activity recorders, and other modern methods of decoding human behavior, these neuroaesthetes are breathing new life into Kant’s theory that there exists an objective measure of “beauty”—or, at the very least, a somewhat objective measure of how rewarding something is to behold.

What researchers in this field are trying to find certainly does not only lie in the neuroimaging data collected in laboratories, and their studies are not limited to that of cognitive mechanisms alone. Rather, it is an interdisciplinary field which incorporates theories from many others—most notably, those of behavioral and evolutionary psychology—as a means to figure out possible reasons for our aesthetic experiences. Researchers in the field claim, for example, that the neural mechanisms involved in aesthetic enjoyment have evolved from very basic processes which were crucial to our survival as a species. Just as sugar is inherently rewarding—we have evolved to enjoy the food which will provide us with the most energy—so, too, is the noticing of grouped objects, patterns, contrast, etc., because it is crucial to our navigation of the physical world. It might make sense, then, to say that just as our biological attraction to sugar gave rise to our desire for candy, from similar biological predispositions comes the desire for art. Art, it can be said, is candy for the mind.

VS Ramachandran and William Hirstein were pioneers in this field, and their seminal paper “The Science of Art,” published in 1999, is an in-depth exploration of the subconscious neural processes that provide the basis of our aesthetic enjoyment of visual art. While providing tremendous insight into the way the human brain processes sensory information, Ramachandran and Hirstein outline what they refer to as the “‘Eight laws of aesthetic experience’—a set of heuristics that artists either consciously or unconsciously deploy to optimally titillate the visual areas of the brain” (15). Our recognition of something as beautiful relies, they suggest, on these eight laws. I will not go into too much detail here, but these principles include our natural propensity to allocate our attention toward an isolated aspect and thus amplify the resolution and responsiveness in that modality, the inherently rewarding instinct of extracting and separating contrasting stimuli, and the likewise rewarding binding and grouping of those stimuli. Explored also, though in slightly less detail, are our innate affinities for symmetry and metaphor, and our adherence to Bayesian logic of perception—that is, our tendency to think of an object as it is usually and most simply seen, rather than from some strange perspective.

One of the most interesting ideas Ramachandran and Hirstein explore, however, and one that is also the most congruent with the mind-candy analogy, is the “peak shift principle.” Consider this example:

“If a rat is taught to discriminate a square from a rectangle . . . and rewarded for the rectangle, it will soon learn to respond more frequently to the rectangle.

Paradoxically, however, the rat’s response to a rectangle that is even longer and skinnier is even greater than it was to the original prototype on which it was trained. This curious result implies that what the rat is learning is not a prototype but a rule, i.e. rectangularity” (18).

They take this perceptual tendency and connect it to how we perceive works of art, by boldly asserting that “all art is caricature” at its core, that the isolation and exaggeration of specific features create a “super stimulus” which our brain responds to with greater intensity. It is because of the peak-shift principle, Ramachandran and Hirstein argue, that an artist is able to convey the “essence” of a thing without needing to depict it exactly as it is.

Thus far, most of the research in the very young field of neuroaesthetics has been concerning visual art. This makes sense, considering that humans rely primarily on sight as opposed to the other senses, and the human brain is particularly attuned to processing visual input (Postle, 56). That being said, much has also been written about the neural correlates of the experience of music and of literature. And while a few of Ramachandran and Hirstein’s eight laws seem only to make sense for visual art, some of the most important principles are easily applicable to a variety of media. They suggest, for example, that the peak shift effect may also present itself in a musical experience, as certain sounds could serve as aural super stimuli, “generating peak shifts in certain primitive, passionate primate vocalizations such as a separation cry” (19).

Now, it is important to remember that the particular approach to neuroaesthetic theory just briefly described—what Peer F. Bundgaard refers to as “the neuroaesthetics of beauty”—is an incredibly simplified one. It would be fair to suggest that Ramachandran and Hirstein’s title “The Science of Art” is a bit misleading. Their paper does not describe the science of art per se, but the science of our initial aesthetic experience to something. Surely, there are plenty of things created with intention and which invite an aesthetic judgment but which are not considered art. A flower garden in someone’s front yard, for instance, or a striking cityscape. In this way, the neuroaesthetics of beauty, championed by people like Ramachandran and Hirstein, represents only one side of the aesthetic experience of art, that of sensory perception alone, and is generally inadequate to substantially deepen our understanding of the phenomenon.

The neglect in early neuroaesthetic literature of the aesthetic experience’s non-perceptual aspects is exactly the problem Bundgaard addresses in his 2014 essay “Feeling, meaning, and intentionality—a critique of the neuroaesthetics of beauty.” In this essay, Bundgaard explains how the approach taken by Ramachandran and others fails mainly in that it seems to consider the feeling of beauty derived from sensory input alone to be the most important, if not the only aspect of aesthetic experience. For Bundgaard, who also grounds his argument in neurophysiology, aesthetic experience should instead “be defined relative to its object and the tools for meaning-making specific to that object” (781). What he argues is that intentionality and the communication of some kind of meaning are as aspects in a work of art just as important, if not more so, than brushstrokes and color alone, and are necessary and inevitable components of our judgments.

Bundgaard further claims that the aesthetic experience is not one of mere perception, but of action, of bottom-up as well as top-down mental processes. To put it in other words, the appreciation of an artwork is not a passive, but in fact quite an active enterprise, and always involves an interaction of sorts between the beholder and the artwork (and, consequently, the artist). It is because of this “intentional relation,” that when we behold an artwork, we know is supposed to be evaluated aesthetically, we experience it quite differently than if we were presented with the same stimulus without context. And this context, Bundgaard argues, is not only valuable to our aesthetic appraisals, but is impossible to circumvent, even when we try our hardest to free ourselves from all associations or biases. Since there is no way for the brain to process any one thing in complete isolation, as it is constantly taking in and piecing together information about our environment to guide our thoughts and behavior, we are always under the influence of some perceptual frame of reference, and this condition is what Bundgaard claims most neuroaesthetes ignore.

In light of this critique, the bulk of neuroaesthetic theory, which is essentially the neuroaesthetics of beauty, seems akin to aesthetic formalism. A formalist approach to aesthetic critique is certainly not unheard of—Kant himself was of the mind that the beauty of things can and must be objectively and disinterestedly judged, that all pure aesthetic judgments must be judgments of form alone. (It should be noted that though Kant had excluded features like color and tone, which he thought to be too subjective, from a proper formal assessment, which focused instead on things like shape and arrangement. For the sake of this argument, however, all kinds sensory input from an artwork are to be considered form, as today’s neuroaesthetes would tell you that our reactions to things like color and tone are just as directly correlated with neural activity as are shape and arrangement). But as far as works of art go, a purely formalist approach is likewise challenged. It is often said that one cannot make a just assessment on the quality of an artwork based on form alone, but that some kind of perceptual frame of reference is required to make a judgment. In fact, what Bundgaard suggests in his paper is that even those who consider themselves aesthetic formalists cannot ever truly separate themselves from the social, and even historical or political contexts in which the artwork rests. There can never be a truly disinterested observer.

There might, however, be evidence against this critique in the research grounding the neuroaesthetics of literary reading. In his 2009 paper “Neuroaesthetics of Literary Reading,” David S. Miall cites several studies from which proof of a certain disinterestedness might be found. Miall discusses the substantial role played by mirror neurons—cells in the motor cortex which are essential in imitation behavior, action planning, and empathy (Postle, 225). Drawing on the findings of Becchio and Bertone (2005), Miall discusses the importance of a particular subset of amodal mirror neurons, “activated whether watching, performing, or merely imagining doing an action. [Becchio and Bertone] go on to claim that these ‘audiovisual mirror neurons . . . map actions in a multisubjective neural format neutral with respect to the agent’” (243). What this implies, says Miall, is that when reading, “while a character is not physically present but imagined, mirror neurons represent the character’s experience in the reader, replicating his feelings or motor actions. But . . . if the same representation is active in two brains, how do we distinguish the ‘I’?” (243). Miall draws the conclusion that when we read, “we experience, even if only momentarily, a schema for action or feeling that makes its own demands on us for understanding. Its status as a vehicle for reflection and anticipation orients us, independently of the self, toward the implications of the narrative we are reading, although it may subsequently be linked to our own intentions, goals, or feelings” (243). This way of thinking about the disinterested aesthetic response—as something that does not explicitly point away from the self, but by presenting “experience without agency” (Miall, 244)—is a departure from Kant’s ideal. However, if anything, insights like this one might speak to Bundgaard’s desire that the typical neuroaesthetic perspectives and practices be shifted.

Regardless, Bungaard’s critiques are still valid, particularly with regard to the neuroaesthetics of visual art. Indeed, much of the research in this field does little to explain the unique phenomenon of experiencing an artwork, or to address how these interactions with works of art are perhaps different in their very nature from our interactions with objects in everyday life. However, Bundgaard’s arguments about the limits of neuroaesthetics make all the more interesting his later recognition that “what we understand and acknowledge as art is historically contingent” and that the study of neuroaesthetics should therefore “not be limited to artworks proper (but extended to whatever objects or situations may trigger an appreciative or aesthetic judgment)” (787). So, to follow this line of thought would be to concede that the elements of the neuroaesthetics of beauty are still necessary and should remain present in the neuroaesthetic discussion, but that there are yet less easily observable components of aesthetic experience that must also be considered.

It is now very clear that as critical as Bundgaard is of the typical approach to neuroaesthetic research, he in no way means to dismiss the field of neuroaesthetics as a whole. If anything, quite the opposite is true—by tirelessly assessing both the failures of neuroaethetic research and its successes, and by simultaneously proposing potential directions for it to take, it seems as though Bundgaard very earnestly believes in the virtues of neuroaesthetic study and is actively attempting to better and to further legitimize the field. However, from this resolution, yet more questions emerge. What will we be able to do with this information, and where else is it applicable? What does it mean not only for Kant, but for the future of aesthetic theory? Or of neurological research, for that matter?

Unfortunately, it is still uncertain. It is true that early research in the field of neuroaesthetics has done much to confirm Kant’s theory of a universal concept of the beautiful. It even provides an adequate explanation for such seemingly magical properties of artworks as their ability to depict the “essence” of a thing. What hopefully follows from this is the possibility for future authors of aesthetic criticism to more accurately identify which aspects of an artwork are striking to them based on their own cultural biases, and which they may actually be biologically inclined to pay attention to—they may be able more clearly define the lines between the subjectively and the objectively pleasing. On top of this, neuroscientists, aesthetic theorists, and thinkers like Bundgaard continue to offer new and diverse insights into the truth behind our fascination with the aesthetic.

All this being said, it is important that we do not distract ourselves by trying to find definite answers to our ambitious questions. Neuroaethetics is a field capable of offering some of the most intelligent and revolutionary works of aesthetic theory, but, like all neuroscientific fields, its applications are nevertheless marred by our insatiable appetite for absolutes, and the readiness with which we fall back on an easy answer. The discussion about the relationship between art and biology will, I think, always bear fruit. Its urgency lies not where it seems to at the outset—that is, not in the exploration of the exact mechanisms involved in processing sensory information, nor in how or why art of any sort is biologically important to us. These technical questions seem almost trivial in comparison to the notion on which they are grounded, and which neuroaesthetic study will continue to affirm: that art is in fact of biological importance to us and that regardless of any one individual’s socioculturally-mediated judgment of taste, we are ultimately not as disparate as we seem; we are all the inhabitants of a shared aesthetic reality.


Works Cited

Bundgaard, Peer F. “Feeling, Meaning, and Intentionality-a Critique of the Neuroaesthetics.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 14.4 (2015): 781-801. 3 Mar. 2014. Web.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Trans. James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon, 1952. Print.

Miall, David S. “Neuroaesthetics of Literary Reading.” Neuroaesthetics. Amityville, NY: Baywood Pub., 2009. 233-44. Print.

Postle, Bradley R. Essentials of Cognitive Neuroscience. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2015. Print.

Ramachandran, V.S., and William Hirstein. “The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience.” Journal of Consciousness Studies (1999): 15-51.