Most of the experimental work done in the arts focuses on the experience and appreciation of art, rather on than its creation. This may be the result of the empirical methodologies that are central to work in the sciences, paired with the fact that the same work of art, piece of music, or performance can be appreciated by a large number of people but is likely to have been created by either one person or a small group of people.
Using the discipline of evolutionary biology as a starting point for understanding human cognition has enabled scholars to understand both the arts and how humans have evolved as a species. In that vein, researchers have asked if evolution played a role in humans’ ability to appreciate beauty, thus predisposing humans to appreciation of the arts. In The Seductions of Darwin: Art, Evolution, Neuroscience, art historian Matthew Rampley writes that the answer to that question is yes—natural selection did inform aesthetic sensibility, and neuroscience can demonstrate that. In The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art, neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee uses evolutionary psychology to explain the evolution of pleasure that conditions responses to art, music, and objects of beauty. Chatterjee argues that people are drawn to things of beauty as a remnant of their ancestors’ instincts to improve their chances of survival. Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, by philosopher and music scholar David Rothenberg, looks at how animals evolved to appreciate beauty and how that appreciation served as the cognitive backdrop for humans to develop art making. Rothenberg draws heavily on evolutionary biology when interrogating sexual beauty, abstract beauty, camouflage, human depictions of nonhuman animals, and imagery made by animals such as chimpanzees and elephants. Although it has become common in zoos and wildlife preserves to provide animals with access to art-making materials, it remains unclear to what degree art made in these human-controlled circumstances reflects the innate artistic abilities of non-humans. In The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, public intellectual and neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran explores various aspects of visual perception and cognition to theorize that aesthetics are informed by universal human experiences and that these aesthetic experiences differentiate humans from other species. Ramachandran includes some non-Western examples in his analysis, for example, Indian art. Philosopher Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution provides an excellent synthesis of biological research on aesthetics, arguing that the humanities should predicate analysis of the arts on biology rather than communication. Biopoetics: Evolutionary Exploration in the Arts, edited by Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner, focuses on literature. Archaeologist Steven Mithen emphasizes prehistoric art in The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion, and Science. He looks at how the human brain evolved cognitive fluidity—the ability to think in flexible ways and adapt psychologically to myriad environmental conditions—which, he argues, was an important precursor for, and testified to by, the creation of art. In her broadly focused The Biological Origins of Art, Nancy Aiken discusses and diagrams the cognitive experience of art from both evolutionary and behavioral perspectives. Focusing on art’s capacity to arouse emotions, Aiken explores the process of sensory receptors signaling the central nervous system, the ways that different levels of sensory stimuli are processed, and the ways that art has become a powerful tool of social and political manipulation.
The study of cognition and the arts presents a methodological dilemma, since one can only indirectly infer what people understand. A simple approach to accessing the cognition of art is to ask people what their thoughts are after looking at a painting, listening to a concerto, or reading a poem, and then generalizing from their responses. Researchers use interviews or surveys to access this subjective data. However, this approach is limiting since it accesses only what people understand consciously, and respondents may express themselves by generalizing or making confusing statements. Researchers have thus adopted methods like eye tracking and neuroimaging to gain a more objective understanding. Eye tracking involves the use of specialized devices to determine what part of a picture someone is focusing on at any given moment. The first use of eye tracking to study art was undertaken in the 1930s by psychologist Guy Thomas Buswell, who published his results in How People Look at Pictures: A Study of the Psychology of Perception in Art. Neuroimaging is the general term for brain scans, which can take many forms—computed tomography (CT), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), magnetoencephalography (MEG), electroencephalography (EEG), and cranial ultrasound. Much of the research involving eye tracking and neuroimaging has been published in journals rather than books, but is also summarized in many of the books discussed under “Friendly Starting Points” (above). Together these approaches encapsulate a robust tradition of scientific scrutiny of the arts in laboratories, albeit a tradition that primarily consists of research done by people trained as scientists rather than scholars of the arts. As work continues to be undertaken, the hope is that historians and theorists of the arts take a more central role in devising research questions and evaluating results of experimentation.
Literary scholar G. Gabrielle Starr’s Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience, which issues from a collaboration with neuroscience researchers, develops a theory of how the experience of aesthetic pleasure is distributed across many parts of the brain, rather than being localized. Using data gathered from brain-scan experiments, Starr focuses on how beauty is sparked by perception, experienced as emotion, encoded as memory, and described as language. Starr demonstrates these embodied aesthetic experiences through case studies from the visual arts, music, and literature. For a sophisticated treatment of how neuroscience can inform understanding of art historiography, as well as how neurofunctioning impacts research done today in art history, the definitive work is John Onians’s Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki. In it, Onians (a student of Ernst Gombrich) revisits the canon of major art-historical writers, showing how some scholars have posited relationships of the brain to artistic creation and viewer reception for thousands of years. Onians posits an evolutionary model of how artistic techniques and aesthetic preferences evolved to match the changing cognitive experiences of both makers and viewers. The analysis is reflexive, showing how art historians’ own cognitive experiences “select” which artworks are meaningful for their scholarly endeavors. Neuroscientist Charles Gross looks at historical material in A Hole in the Head: More Tales in the History of Neuroscience, which discusses how neuroscience can change understanding of the visual arts. In the realm of fine art, Gross looks at “psychosurgery” depicted in the art of Hieronymus Bosch and Rembrandt’s painting of a human dissection with an exposed brain, along with numerous scientific images outside the fine arts. Gregory Minissale extends this field to recently made art in The Psychology of Contemporary Art, in which he brings together research drawn from neuroscience and cognitive psychology to explain how human responses to contemporary art mitigate perceptual responses and instead encourage conceptual thought.
In practice, much of the research on cognitive science and the arts tends to focus on only one of the sister arts‒be it visual art, literature, or the performing arts. It is therefore useful to identify some of the best studies in these fields. Esteemed neurobiologist Semir Zeki is considered the father of neuroaesthetics, and indeed he coined the term for this field of study. Zeki’s Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain provides a good overview of the field. Focusing on masterpieces of Western art—including work by Michelangelo and Vermeer along with modern styles (Impressionism, cubism, de Stijl, Fauvism, suprematism, and kinetic art)—Zeki describes how the brain both creates and responds to visual art. According to Zeki, artists perceive nature in abstract patterns that correspond to the brain’s visual cortex, and, in turn, trigger the same brain cells in the viewer. In this respect, Zeki asserts, artists are “neurologists,” since their artwork mirrors the organization of the visual brain. English literature scholar Paul Armstrong’s How Literature Plays with the Brain: The Neuroscience of Reading and Art is the definitive treatment on how the brain relates to written texts. Armstrong is especially interested in how the human brain evolved, often by playing and engaging in other recreational activities. Such play helps people contend with both ambiguity and harmony, which results in experiences of aesthetic beauty and the feeling of emotions. Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist focuses on how in their creative work canonical authors like Walt Whitman, George Elliot, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf inadvertently anticipated a contemporary understanding of neurons, the brain, and cognition. Lehrer also includes thoughts on chef Auguste Escoffier, artist Paul Cézanne, and composer Igor Stravinsky. All these creative artists serve as precursors to the neuroscientists of today, within the intellectual history of cognitive science.
The psychology of emotion is closely related to the field of aesthetics, and Tone Roald’s study of people looking at art, Cognition in Emotion: An Investigation through Experiences with Art, is a good resource on this subject. In the performing arts, Smith’s The Nervous Stage (mentioned early in this essay) does an excellent job of showing how theater changed in the late nineteenth century, as people came to understand their experiences as being the result of their “nerves” rather than their “souls.” And neurologist Michel Trimble’s The Soul in the Brain: The Cerebral Basis of Language, Art, and Belief explores how the cerebrum relates to musical appreciation. Of particular interest is Trimble’s discussion of how infants appreciate musical qualities like pitch and timbre.