Friday, April 18, 2008

Beauty ? It`s in the Neurones...

Joseph Mallord William Turner
born 23 April 1775 - died 19 December 1851
Rome from Mount Aventine 1836
Oil on canvas
36 x 49 inches (91.6 x 124.6 cm)

John Ruskin
born 1819 - died 1900
The Garden of San Miniato near Florence 1845
Watercolor on paper
Private collection

Why does one find a painting or other work of art "exciting" or enthralling ?

Not long ago A. S. Byatt published a TLS Commentary (“Observe the Neurones”, September 22, 2006) in which she purported to explain why, since she discovered John Donne’s poetry as a schoolgirl in the 1950s, she had found him “so very exciting”.

The primary concern of her piece was to explain the poems and their effect on her by appealing to contemporary neurophysiology.

A generation of academic literary critics has now arisen who invoke “neuroscience” to assist them in their work of explication, interpretation and appreciation.

Norman Bryson, once a leading exponent of Theory and a social constructivist, has described his Damascene conversion, as a result of which he now places the firing of neurons rather than signifiers at the heart of literary criticism.

Evolutionary explanations of why people create and enjoy literature, “neurocognitive frameworks” for aesthetics, and neural-network explanations for the perception of beauty are all linked through the notion that our experiences of art are the experiences of a brain developed to support survival.

Neuroscience groupies reduce the reading and writing of literature and the appreciation and making of art to brain events that are common to every action in ordinary human life, and, in some cases, in ordinary non-human animal life.

It is therefore refreshing to read a critique of the new theory of neuroscience on aesthetics. In the Times Literary Supplement, Raymond Tallis, the Emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester and the author of The Enduring Significance of Parmenides: Unthinkable thought, 2007 produces a devastating critique in The neuroscience delusion:Neuroaesthetics is wrong about our experience of literature – and it is wrong about humanity

"Under normal circumstances, experiences are had by a person, not by a stand-alone brain. The brain of an experiencing person is not isolated, like the famous “brain in a vat” of Hilary Putnam’s thought experiment: it is in a body. Corresponding to this is the fact that when, for example, I see something I like, or someone I love, my brain, or some small part of it, is not the only part of me to light up. My heart may beat faster, or more thickly; a smile may appear on my face; and my step may be a little jauntier. The effects do not stop there. My body is located in a currently experienced environment; and, since I am human, that environment is situated in a world that is extended in all spatial, temporal, cultural directions. This world, too, may be transformed by my encounter with the loved one’s face, and I may think differently about it. For the extraordinary thing about human beings – and what captures what is human – is that they transcend their bodies; that human experience is not solitary sentience but has a public face; it belongs to a community of minds.

This is a process that has developed over many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years since hominids parted company from the monkeys. The neuromythologist, trying to find citizens and their worlds in neurones, stuffs all that has been created by the collective of brains back into a stand-alone brain; indeed into a small part of such a brain. True, we require a brain to participate in the community of minds; but that participation is not to be reduced to activity in bits of brains.

While we have yet to make observations in or about the stand-alone brain that explain even simple experiences (and, in fact, outside of the laboratory no human experience is simple, as every experience is connected with, and belongs to, a constructed and collective world of experiences), it is true that brain science looks more plausible as an account of the damaged brain, or the activity and inactivity associated with brain damage, than as an account of ordinary successful functioning. As a doctor specializing in the care of people with epilepsy over the years, I found it easier to account in neuronal terms for an epileptic fit than for the patient’s decision to come to see me and to trust or not trust my advice, or for my own decision to read the latest article on epilepsy. So why should I begin to believe in a neural account of the reading of a poem?

It is important not to suggest that it is only in rather special states of creativity – say, reading or writing poems – that we are distanced from animals. This is a mistake. We are different from animals in every waking moment of our lives. The bellowing on the lavatory that I referred to earlier demonstrates a huge gulf between us and our nearest animal kin. But if we deny this difference (invoking chimps etc) even in the case of creativity – and the appreciation of works of art – then no distance remains. That is why one would expect critics to be on the side of the poets, with their sense of this complexity, rather than siding with the terribles simplificateurs of scientism. A. S. Byatt’s neural approach to literary criticism is not only unhelpful but actually undermines the calling of a humanist intellectual, for whom literary art is an extreme expression of our distinctively human freedom, of our liberation from our organic, indeed material, state.

At any rate, attempting to find an explanation of a sophisticated twentieth-century reader’s response to a sophisticated seventeenth-century poet in brain activity that is shared between humans and animals, and has been around for many millions of years, rather than in communities of minds that are unique to humans, seems perverse.

Neuroaesthetics is wrong about the present state of neuroscience: we are not yet able to explain human consciousness, even less articulate self-consciousness as expressed in the reading and writing of poetry. It is wrong about our experience of literature. And it is wrong about humanity. "