Friday, September 19, 2008

Beauty and the Brain - Neuroaesthetics

A very fluffy article from Seed on Neuroaesthetics, the merger of neuroscience and art theory/criticism. Not sure this is a good thing, but it's damn interesting.

Neuroaesthetics promises to reinvigorate science's search for a theory of beauty.

Illustration by Gluekit.

Why is something beautiful? David Hume argued that beauty exists not in things but "in the mind that contemplates them." And everyone has at some point heard the old saw that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But Plato had a fanciful answer made to argue for a universal truth: In his world of forms, he claimed there existed a perfect Form of Beauty, which was imperfectly manifested in what we call beautiful. Despite the allure of Plato's metaphorical claim, students of aesthetics have struggled to substantiate it. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that there exist quantifiable, describable, universal aspects to the human capacity for appreciating beautiful forms, perhaps originating in our ancestors' experience on African savannas or in the need to find suitable mates. They have not solved the problem. However, recent work by several researchers at University College London — including the establishment of the first major grant-driven research program for the neurobiological investigation of aesthetics, or neuroaesthetics — has made the first steps toward a unified biocultural theory of art. An object's beauty may not be universal, but the neural basis for appreciating beauty probably is. The researchers' initial discoveries and the increasing formalization of the field promise to open the way for the first time to an understanding of beauty based on something other than speculation.

The first studies of aesthetics and the brain began with the sort of self-experimentation that science doesn't encourage anymore. In the 1920s neurologist Heinrich Klüver documented the hallucinations he experienced while under the influence of mescaline, using four categories: grids, zigzags, spirals, and curves. Noting their similarity to the hallucinations experienced in various conditions, such as migraine, sensory deprivation, and the hypnagogic state that occurs in the transition from wakefulness to sleep, he named them "form constants." These motifs do indeed seem to be constant — they recur throughout history and across cultures, and can be seen, for example, in prehistoric cave paintings, in the girih patterns of the tile mosaics decorating medieval mosques, and in the repeating tessellations of M.C. Escher's impossible figures or the rectangular forms of Mondrian's Compositions. Underlying those patterns, at least in part, are the intrinsic properties of the visual nervous system. Most neurons in the primary visual cortex occur in repeating structures called ocular dominance columns; these in turn are organized into hypercolumns, whose long-range interconnections are arranged geometrically. The spontaneous activity of these neural networks gives rise to the patterns Klüver studied.

Such investigations of the biology of aesthetics, however, had heretofore not been anyone's primary research focus; rather, the investigations have been subordinated to some other work, such as modelling the visual system. Semir Zeki of University College London is pioneering modern neuroaesthetics, and, thanks in part to a £1 million grant from the Wellcome Trust in the UK last autumn, is forging ahead with a research program that tries to establish the neurobiological underpinnings for creativity, beauty, and even love.

Go read the whole article.

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