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May we suggest

Features / January 28, 2019

On the Brain

How we encounter art is far more complex than neuroscientists suggest
Sally McKay audited a course in brain-scan technology at York University in 2010. As part of the course, students in the class designed experiments for the MRI scanner, and then went into the scanner to be subjects for each other’s projects. These images are Sally’s brain, scanned during one of her fellow students’ experiments. Sally McKay audited a course in brain-scan technology at York University in 2010. As part of the course, students in the class designed experiments for the MRI scanner, and then went into the scanner to be subjects for each other’s projects. These images are Sally’s brain, scanned during one of her fellow students’ experiments.
Sally McKay audited a course in brain-scan technology at York University in 2010. As part of the course, students in the class designed experiments for the MRI scanner, and then went into the scanner to be subjects for each other’s projects. These images are Sally’s brain, scanned during one of her fellow students’ experiments. Sally McKay audited a course in brain-scan technology at York University in 2010. As part of the course, students in the class designed experiments for the MRI scanner, and then went into the scanner to be subjects for each other’s projects. These images are Sally’s brain, scanned during one of her fellow students’ experiments.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts recently announced a unique promotion: it is offering physicians in Quebec the ability to prescribe a free trip to the museum for some patients, suggesting that “the arts stimulate neuronal connectivity” and provoke “richer, more complex neural activity.”

Why do so many arts institutions have a fascination with neuroscience? It’s clear, on the one hand, what art can do for neuroscience: it provides an area of study that pushes the boundaries of the discipline. Examining how the brain processes art experiences is providing scientists with new information about neural anatomy. While brain function can be fascinating, most museums aren’t trying to chart the organ’s working parts.

So here is a better connection: the fields of art and neuroscience both help us think, philosophically, about how we interact with the world. Unfortunately, that thinking is sometimes muddied with oversimplifications about how our brains process the experience of art—and in simplifying the explanation, it’s implied that the value of art lies solely in its provision of pleasure and gratification, as well as in the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, when in fact many other neurological phenomena are involved.

Incorrect assumptions turn up in the way artists, curators and museum directors easily accept premises about neuroscience that they would never accept about art alone. News stories about neuroscience often imply that brain research provides fundamental, universal information about the human condition. In the field of art, however, universalizing claims have largely been debunked. Most contemporary artists and critics would hesitate to claim that a given artwork could trigger the exact same response in all viewers.

We generally understand that social conditions inform perception, and that an individual brings their own lived experience to every artwork they encounter. But when it comes to art and neuroscience, these understandings seem to fly out the window. Take the following headline-style statement promoted by the UK organization Art Fund, for example: “Art Gives Same Level of Pleasure as Being in Love.” This is the title of a video produced by the arts funding agency to promote a national art pass that encourages attendance at galleries and museums. It features neurobiologist Semir Zeki, who is a pioneer in the field of neuroaesthetics—a relatively new field aimed at studying how humans process beauty and art.

The video opens with a shot of people looking at art in a gallery, with a voice-over narration that states, “Art lovers have long thought that art is important to our well-being, but they had no proof, until now.” The proof—as this Art Fund video relates it—is that Zeki’s lab performed experiments that found the experience of beauty activates pleasure centres in the brain, releasing the chemical dopamine, or, in Zeki’s terms, the “feel-good neurotransmitter.” The goal of the video is clear: neuroscience is invoked to validate art experiences, and convince people to buy an art pass.

Like other media coverage of its kind, this video is deeply patronizing to art lovers and misrepresents the neuroscience of pleasure—it even misrepresents Zeki’s own research findings. The video leaves viewers with the following arguments: that science validates art, that art is all about beauty, and that the specific Western artworks that appear in the video will trigger a universally positive response, making it seem as if looking at art is akin to pushing a pleasure-button in the brain.

Other theories about pleasure—ones that go beyond gratification and dopamine release—may be more relevant to the ways people engage with art. After all, art is rarely a passive experience, and gratification is not always involved.

In fact, the paper published by Zeki’s lab explains that not all art is considered beautiful, and that every individual’s experience of beauty is different and culturally conditioned. In Zeki’s experiment, the artworks shown were from all over the world, not just from Western art history. Also, importantly, the experience of beauty was determined by self-report, meaning that each subject indicated when they thought something was beautiful, and that self-reported experience was then correlated with scans of activity in that individual’s brain.

The artworks did not trigger an experience of beauty in everyone, but rather people drew on their own life experiences to find beauty in some of the images. In the end, the study simply affirms what we already know: that the release of dopamine is associated with pleasure. It doesn’t tell us very much about art.

There is a lot to unpack here. Does art need validation from neuroscience? The short answer is a firm and resounding “no.” Artists, art audiences, curators, critics and art historians already understand and articulate the deep historical and contemporary value of art on many levels, including for pleasure.

But the long answer is more complicated. Art may not need validation from neuroscience, but society places a higher value on neuroscience than it does on the study of art. In practical terms, artists, curators and museum marketers do sometimes appropriate the language of neuroscience to affirm the value of art. Unfortunately, when we do this we not only discredit the value of subjective knowledge produced in artistic disciplines, we also cut ourselves off from interesting debates within the discipline of neuroscience itself.

Other theories about pleasure—ones that go beyond gratification and dopamine release—may be more relevant to the ways people engage with art. After all, art is rarely a passive experience, and gratification is not always involved. Artworks can be puzzling, questioning, even irritating in ways that keep us coming back for more, and many neuroscientists recognize the complexity of pleasure and dopamine release, too.

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, for instance, found that dopamine is associated with a type of activity he calls “seeking.” This involves being alert and curious, and actively creating meaningful connections through scanning your surroundings. According to Panksepp, seeking is pleasurable in itself, regardless of ultimate gratification or reward.

Art historian Barbara Maria Stafford, who has written extensively on neuroaesthetics, suggests that one of the main functions of art is to “snap us to attention.” For Stafford, it is important to remember that we can choose to pay attention. In this model, art does not trigger a response in passive viewers, but rather provides an opportunity for us to intentionally engage our curiosity in an active state of self-awareness.

Philosopher Andy Clark, who produces research in dialogue with cognitive scientists and neuroscientists, also refuses to think of the brain as a passive organ waiting to receive perceptual stimuli. Instead, he focuses his research on the ways brains operate in active pursuit of information. Traditional (and increasingly outdated) neuroscientific models assume a bottom-up direction of processing: perception begins in lower, non-conscious regions of the brain and works up to higher-level areas, where decision-making occurs.

Clark challenges this model, suggesting that higher- and lower-level brain regions are always working in concert. His theory of “predictive processing” suggests that our brains are continually making predictions about what to expect from our perceptions, and that when those predictions are confounded, we suddenly become alert—which is another way to understand, perhaps, the impact of art on the brain.

Of course, we absolutely do not need neuroscience to tell us how to look at art. But improving our understanding of how the brain interacts with artworks, and looking to different models that theorize those interactions, could help broaden access to various types of art experiences, whether they are pleasurable or not.

The art world has many barriers that can prevent access to meaningful engagement, including the social expectation that artworks are supposed to initiate an intense, emotional response. For people who are new to looking at art, the fact that they might not be deeply moved or emotionally gratified while experiencing an art museum can feel like a failure—of the artist, or, worse, a failure in themselves for not “getting it.”

Understanding neuroscientific theories like those of Panksepp, Clark and Stafford might help us feel empowered to embrace more open-ended, active modes of interaction, since these theories imply that art can provide subtle pleasures that aren’t about gratification or emotional reward. After all, if there is pleasure to be had in seeking and making meaning through perception, what better place to indulge than in a room full of art?

This is an article from our Winter 2019 issue, themed on Pleasure.

Sally McKay

Sally McKay is an artist, art writer and educator based in Hamilton. Her art and research deals with cognition, consciousness and social structures.