This Is Your Brain on Art

Why does Ramachandran continuously feel the need to reassure us that we can gain knowledge about art from neuroscience without losing anything? It seems to presuppose, at the very least, that the other option is a possibility, that looking for (and finding) elemental forces in the brain that govern aesthetic impulses could, in fact, transform our actual experience of art.

via The Smart Set: This Is Your Brain on Art – March 16, 2011.

Ramachandran’s arguments seem to be fairly easy to overcome: aesthetic experience is at least partly a matter of culture and can’t be explained in purely biological terms.  What’s interesting here is the way that some common space is being found between neuroscience and the humanities.  It appears as if a compatibilist, non-reductive position is being proposed, but it’s not clear from this review how any tensions might be dealt with (though the suggestion is ‘not that well’).

If anything, this review suggests that there’s quite a gulf between approaches to questions about the mind in neuroscience and the humanities.  Ramachandran certainly seems to think it possible that we could discover fundamental laws about aesthetic experience without somehow devaluing art.  It’s hard to believe that knowledge of fundamental laws about the experience of beauty wouldn’t in some way affect what we find beautiful.  After all, self-knowledge is not value-neutral.

There has been a vast accretion of knowledge about the natural world and about ourselves over the last two centuries… the understanding we have gained has not been neutral. It has not left the world as it was. The understanding has transformed our relationship to the world, to one another, to ourselves.

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