Neuro-aesthetics and Beyond: Intersections of Art and Science

Clarissa Lee also blogs at HASTAC (, and

Haeckel, Spumellaria (detail)What has been happening in academia in the past two decades, especially in the most recent decade, problematizes and calls into question C.P. Snow’s unequivocal insistence that the twain of the world of arts/humanities and the sciences shall never meet. In that interstice between arts (humanities included) and science, it is no longer novel for a humanist or artist to attempt to venture into that part of the ship that seems to be antithetical to what one does. 

In a not too distant past, many a humanist who had ventured into the world of scientific inquiry confined themselves to teasing out that metaphorical or literary trope by referencing actions or entities in the biological or physical sciences, or in using scientific metaphors to discuss techniques of imagery and concepts invoked by an author. The selective utilization of these "scientific theories" are more demonstrative of the preoccupation of the literary critic than representative of the oeuvre. The not-too-technical deployment of scientific concepts into the realm of close reading or literary criticism birthed this category of scholarship in literature and science. It is probable that some of the literary critics may get the theories wrong (the way some science fiction authors do too), or prefer to continue dwelling anachronistically into scientific theories that do not befuddle them with the necessity of sophisticated technical understanding. This can be seen in some early anthologies, journal articles and even books in that field, where one bears witness to the tired flogging of motifs and terminologies richly supplied by biology (if it is always biology, more often than not) or old-school theories in cognitive science, to literary analysis. Whether they be the theory of evolution, genetics, botany, zoology or even tropes from natural history (the latter particularly beloved of literary scholars working in the area of pre-twentieth century literature), we could discern attempts to insinuate direct parallel motives between the habits of DNA to ideology and capital, or weave narrative patterns or character interactions into the rubrics provided through these scientific concepts and terminology without any attempt at sublimation or deeper philosophizing. The Sokal case and the Social Text issue that brings Alan Sokal’s entertaining gibberish to a wider audience (including those not informed by the dense lingo of critical theory) is probably an inevitable outcome of that state of affair. I could also point to similar dubious beginnings in the early days of feminist science studies, which led to justified criticism from other philosophers of science, ranging from the mostly-missing-the-point kinds by Noretta Koertge to the more nuanced ones by Helen Longino. These examples are probably evidence of epistemic birth throes of nascent and emerging fields/sub-fields in the humanities. Things have improved greatly since, evidenced by the quality of papers at the annual Society for Literature, Science and the Arts conferences.

However, as all fields of literature grapple with finding relevant and underexplored areas in literary studies, an increasing number of literature professors have decided that a more direct engagement is needed with the fields of sciences and their practitioners. Of course, fields of sciences considered most amenable to their literary theorizing (and also the ones that require less translation between different epistemologies) usually receive more popular interest. The field that is au courant right now is definitely biology (it is the era of biotechnology after all, notwithstanding competition from nanotechnology and high energy physics) and for Duke in particular, it’s the brain sciences. Recent publications in science studies produced by humanists sees a larger number of works critiquing scientific developments through the mobilization of an arsenal of existing or expanded critical theories.

Even as humanists and artists try to build bridges, somewhat differentially, into the kingdom of science, many scientists, save probably the psychologists who are interested in understanding the relation between humanity and culture/art, were resistant towards any attempts by the former group to reach out to them, believing that there is nothing that the arts or the humanities could contribute to the experiments, data-analyses, interpretation of results, or theorizing in the sciences. An exception could be made, however, for a small coterie of theoretical scientists. Nevertheless, the recent decade sees a growing interest in the field of aesthetics from the scientists, especially with the advent of sophisticated visualization techniques. The access and far reach of these digital imaging apparatuses have led to more scientists questioning the relevance of understanding aesthetics in their respective fields, a comprehension that goes beyond merely creating a beautiful equation or conceptually pleasing theory. As scientists are becoming more interested in studying aesthetics of their fields not only as byproducts of their primary research but as a relevant research area in itself that reaches into areas and questions of concern to the humanists, the humanists find themselves making inroads towards the bridging of the divide between the arts and the sciences. However, many humanists have failed to engage with another group within the sciences: the mathematicians.  After all, the mathematicians themselves have long been amenable to visual aesthetics stemming from the images they were able to conjure through the processing of equations in mathematical simulation software such as Maple or Mathematica. This is not to suggest that all mathematicians are polymaths who could see the possibility of interdisciplinary connections to a non-quantitative application. But it does suggest that their field is a productive site for creative non-mathematical engagements.

It is mathematical sciences that has been instrumental in creating the modelling techniques for the study of the brain, bringing us back to the discussion of the brain sciences. Brain science is possibly one of the most amenable field to cross-cultural engagements since the brain is literally the control center of all human activities (including involuntary ones). If mimesis has been that core point of departure for many an artistic and humanistic endeavor, the discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys between the 1980s and 1990s by a group of neuroscientists in Parma, Italy, became the discovery for Romance studies scholars almost a decade later and taken up more broadly by cultural and literary theorists (including media theorists) when they saw this as an opportunity for a possibly more rigorous deployment of scientific theory in the humanities. Mirror neurons are basically the cluster of wired neurons within the brains of a monkey, discovered also in the human, which led to the involuntary mimicking of gestures of another in a group situation. 

One of the scientists in that group of neuroscientists, Vittorio Gallese, has become increasingly interested, in the past few years, in what is called neuroaesthetics. Neuroaesthetics is an attempt to understand human appreciation of aesthetics through neuroscientific methods and tools. Just as a humanist may not be exposed to a wide range of the most recent scientific literatures in that area of science they have interest in, the same applies to the scientists when it comes to specialized humanistic knowledge, though Gallese’s knowledge of the many traditional theorists in aesthetics, language and literature is rather commendable: from Bakthin and Volosinov to E.H. Gombrich.

Jerram, T4 BacteriophageIn a mid-February talk he gave at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Gallese informed his audience that he is interested in understanding embodied simulation as occurring beyond the domain of social cognition even while being a basic function of the mechanism in social cognition. Embodied simulation is an outgrowth of Gallese’s work in mirror neurons that, for him, are constitutive of both audio and visual qualities, even if these two qualities can be separately interrogated. As he deploys his understanding of mimesis in relation to mirror neurons, Gallese suggests that actions have a shared representational form that allows us to map the actions of others onto our own motor representation. The self and other are linked through an intercorporeal subjectivity, and this connection is also mediated by motor-sensory perception and language. As the neuron mechanism engages in seemingly abstract work, a conceptual content, one that links to a concrete action is produced. For example, one begins to appreciate an artwork whether by buying the piece, taking a photo or writing a critical review (all concrete actions) by first absorbing all the sensory signals sent out by an art object and possibly also recalling one’s previous experiences (informed or otherwise) with similar or different forms of artwork (neuro-actions).

Even as Gallese is embarking on a research that will explain the possible cultural difference in one’s reaction to particular techniques of artistic production through his study of Chinese calligraphy, his interest in the cultural influence on one’s aesthetics extends (quite far-reachingly) to the deployment of language not only as a communicative tool but as a tool for developing designs of narration, especially in the production of fictive forms. Gallese sees a continuum between language and the visual arts. He argues that the aesthetic experience is a highly sophisticated enterprise for anyone engaged in humanistic inquiry.

Gallese also argues that all theories of art have to have a neurological origin, seeing that the brain contains and controls human activity. Gallese probably means this in a figurative and literal sense since the brain is considered to be a part of embodied simulation.  After all, the same cortical sites within the brain are activated during execution/observation of object directed actions, communicative actions, and body movements, all of which are intrinsic to artistic production. The mind’s reaction to a stimulant is usually multi-modal, even with a mono-modal stimulant, which is why contemporary art with its simultaneous forms of stimulation is considered exciting. Even then, there is a criticism that much of neuroaesthetics are too focused on the visual aspect of art to the exclusion of other art forms, especially art forms that require a distantiation from all that is familiar in our mundane world.

All in all, Gallese is most pithy when he says that from mimesis comes representation in that it is not a formal representation but an embodied simulation. Depending on how one may wish to define formal, one may be tempted to agree with him. If one were a humanist, how much would one choose to agree or debate with a scientist in his conception of a theoretical framework that is foundational to the study of works of literature? The scientist would probably ask the same of the humanist who does the same thing with the latter’s specialty.

Then, we have the artists (and scientists-turn-artists) who have worked in the intersection of art and science for some centuries. While a number of the current breed of artists have received training in the arts straight out of high school, a sizeable number were trained in other fields before deciding that art is their calling. In this number are mathematicians and scientists who have had advanced training in their respective fields before either becoming a DIY artist or enter into formal training in the arts.  Despite giving in to their passion for the arts, these same artists do not forget their former interests and often inculcate and integrate their work and interest in that other technical field into the production of their artistic portfolio. This is not to say that artists with no formal scientific training are incapable of producing excellent art pieces that engage with, or make use of, scientific theories or understanding. After all, the area of bio-art has seen involvement by artists from all backgrounds.  In the early years of the twentieth century, we have the film-maker, inventor and scientists in the one person of Jean Painleve who made his famous “Science is Fiction Series” and biologist Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature), a series of pictorial reproduction of some of the most beautiful yet microscopic forms in nature (the beginnings of what one might call fractal art). In more recent times, we have Luke Jerram’s Glass Microbiology, in the work done at the UCLA ArtSci Center & Lab, and even more recent collaborations between neuroscientists and artists-in residence at Duke itself. Many issues of Leonardo feature artists navigating scientific ideas to come up with explosive new ideas. The areas of quantum physics and the effects produced by them, as well as cosmology and astrophysics, lend themselves to the creation of sound art, music and e-poetry inspired by their theories and potentialities. In the upcoming Ars Electronica, to be held in September 2011, one will see the Large Hadron Collider featured as the source of artistic inspiration through a themed event called “The Origin.”

* Images: Ernst Haeckle, Spumellaria (detail), Kunstformen der Natur, 1904 (image source); Luke Jerram, T4 Bacteriophage, Glass Microbiology (artist's website)