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Cognitive and Neuroscientific Approaches to the Arts (December 2018): Home

By Travis Nygard and Lauren S. Weingarden


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Choice (volume 56 | number 4).


The topic of cognitive science and the arts may seem highly specialized, but in fact it has bearing on many different disciplines. Some will be intrigued with the ways cognitive science research can be exploited in design and advertising. Others will be interested in how art can help one understand people with mental illness and the differently abled. Many will understand that human sciences can help one understand the human species. Aestheticians will get insights into how people experience beauty. Philosophers may wish to theorize the arts in a new way. Art historians may wish to identify cognitive experiences that contributed to the formation of art and artifacts specific to a past time and place. Historians of music, theater, literature, and other forms of high culture may be interested in how this multidisciplinary field relates to their areas of specialization.

In other words, in the twenty-first century, understanding the connection between cognitive science and the arts is critical. As theater historian Matthew Wilson Smith writes in The Nervous Stage, the way the brain functions is finally being interrogated widely, as evidenced by fields like “neurolaw, neurocriminology, neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, neuroergonomics, neurophilosophy, neuropsychoanalysis, neurotheology, neuroeducation, neuroaesthetics,” and others. More broadly, this indicates that the humanities and sciences are coming together. Given this, one might be tempted to frame the work discussed in this essay as a response to the famous 1959 work of C. P. Snow, who posited that there are “two cultures” in academia—the culture of the sciences and the culture of the humanities—and these only rarely meet.1 The extensive scholarship discussed in this essay does, indeed, bring these two worlds together. However, one must be cautious not to overgeneralize, since to do so would be to ignore the reality that creative people have long been interested in the sciences, and scientists have long been interested in the arts. Indeed, there are some wonderful precursors to work of recent years, books that were published as early as the nineteenth century.

The authors of this essay are both art historians, so the books discussed below lean toward visual material. Nonetheless, the work discussed in this essay touches on a wide range of fields, and the authors have tried to present it in a way that is accessible to readers regardless of their area of expertise.

1. The talk was delivered 7 May 1959 in the Senate House, Cambridge, and subsequently published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, 1959.

Dr. Travis Nygard is associate professor of art history at Ripon College.  Dr. Lauren S. Weingarden is professor of art history at Florida State University.

Works Cited