This is the first in a series of posts by each of the speakers from our panel debate, “In The Mind’s Eye: Can Neuroscience Teach Us Anything About The Aesthetic Experience? “
Rita Carter, June 2014
I think we all agree that aesthetic experience – just like any other – is correlated with certain brain activity. We have learned this through decades of brain imaging experiments where by you look at the neural activity in someone’s brain and ask them what sort of experience they are having. There may be debate about details but few would now deny that there are fairly clear neural markers for certain types of experience.
These include those we describe as aesthetic. At its core, aesthetic experience is pleasure. It’s a very sophisticated type of pleasure, admittedly, because it is one triggered by different things in different people, and it is nearly always clothed in complicated peripheral cognitions which, again will be different for each of us. A naïve listener hearing a piece of music may simply know that a particular piece moves them, whereas a musician may be aware of a million other things about it as well: its composition, harmony, history, the competence of the player and so on. The brains of the two listeners will look very different, and their experiences will also be different, but at the core of both there will be pleasure. If you take that element away from either experience it ceases to be aesthetic and becomes something else.
Aesthetic pleasure is not the same thing as the image you see in a brain scanner of someone feeling it. The two don’t directly translate; looking at a brain scan will not make you feel aesthetic joy and aesthetic pleasure will not tell you which bit of your brain is active.
Yet the two can inform one another. For example, a brain scan can help you discover how to trigger aesthetic pleasure in a person including yourself. For example, it makes it possible to see which stimuli – paintings, for example – generate the strongest reward response in the brain. You may think it is easier just to ask yourself – or the person in the study – what turns them on. But actually aesthetic pleasure is massively complicated because of the “clothing” it comes in. A person may want to be polite, or conform, or look good to others. All these things distort their response, often without the person even knowing why. In other words, we do not always know what most turns us on. The responses of our bodies, and in particular our brains, can be more telling than our words.
Our knowledge of brain science may also give us the ability to enhance or even to induce aesthetic experience.
A study done by researchers in Milan shows that stimulating certain brain areas with a transcranial Direct Current Stimulator – a device that sends a tiny current of electricity through the scalp – can increase aesthetic experience (Cattaneo et al, 2013; above). They showed a group of people a selection of representational paintings and got them to rate the works in terms of beauty before and after part the stimulation. The results showed that appreciation of the images was significantly greater after stimulation.
This study, and several others like it, demonstrates that aesthetic experience depends on brain activity, and by changing that activity we can also alter the experience itself, even when the external stimuli (things which are generally thought of as beautiful) remain constant. Hence neuroscience can have a direct effect on our sense of beauty. I can think of few things that are more worthwhile.