Many people are interested in the new, emerging field of neuroaesthetics – the attempt to use neuroscience to understand art and aesthetic behaviour. It is not an easy field to come to as an outsider, though. First of all, at the moment neuroaesthetics is not so much a coherent field (with textbooks and so on) as a collection of researchers with an individual interest in illuminating the neural underpinnings of art behaviour – and what these researchers take “neuroaesthetics” to mean differ rather widely. Secondly, although quite a lot has been written on neuroaesthetics in the last ten years, there is really no representative publication where newcomers can become acquainted with all the problems and research data pertinent to neuroaesthtics (for the reasons stated above).
I therefore thought that I should ease the way for the interested reader by listing a number of books that can serve as a first introduction to the world of neuroaesthetics. I have chosen to only list more or less popular books, not specialist papers, for two reasons: first, since this list is meant as an introduction, the material on it should not be too difficult; second, listing all relevant research papers is simply impossible within the framework of a short blog post. Choosing to highlight only some papers, leaving out others, would surely also make me unpopular with researchers around the world!
Neuroaesthetics can be thought of as a part of a more general study of art and aesthetics as a biological phenomenon. I will follow other proponents of this view (such as Tecumseh Fitch) in calling this broader approach bioaesthetics. The overall goal of bioaesthetics is to answer the three basic biological questions – what?, how?, why? – in regard to aesthetic behaviour in humans: what is art and aesthetics?; how does art and aesthetics spring from the brain?; and why did this cognitive ability evolve in humans? Neuroaesthetics is predominantly concerned with question number 2. In the list that follows below I will also mention a number of books that discuss the other two questions.
What is aesthetics?
Archaeological and anthropological research can help us answer such fundamental questions as when the first works of art appeared in the fossil record, what characterizes them, and who created them. It is of rather great importance to know what function(s) the first art objects had since that function reflects the cognitive capacities of those who created them. Randall White’s book from 2003, Prehistoric art (Harry N. Abrams), gives a fine overview of the when and what. Steven Mithen’s The prehistory of the mind (Thames and Hudson 1996) and David Lewis-Williams’ The mind in the cave (Thames and Hudson 2004) contain interesting speculation on the question of function and cognitive capabilities.
Equally important is ethnographic studies of what constitutes art in different contemporary societies. Much debate on “the nature” of art takes its departure from wholly theoretical considerations of what features define art. From a biological perspective it is much more interesting to know what people actually do when they create of experience art. Unfortunately, I know of no ethnographical survey, covering all the world’s cultures. However, in her books on the evolution of art Ellen Dissanayake has several great discussions of what art behaviour actually amounts to in different cultures. See especially her first two books, What is art for? (University of Washington Press 1988) and Homo Aestheticus (University of Washington Press 1992).
To these descriptions of art behaviour we should of course add the controlled investigations of experimental aesthetics. Sadly, most of the books trying to review of this psychological research tradition are rather old and outdated, but a short and idiosyncratic introduction to the field can be found in Robert Solso’s last book The psychology of art and the evolution of the conscious brain (Bradford Book 2003), which exclusive focus is on visual art, though. (Books on music are mentioned in the next section.)
How does art and aesthetics spring from the brain?
Neuroaesthetic research on how the brain gives rise to art and aesthetic behaviour can be divided up in three areas of interest: (1) Representation, (2) Emotion, and (3) Creativity.
Research on representation deals with the question of how the brain transforms perceptual inputs into mental representations – images, musical structures, etc. Since the different art forms – visual art, music, literature, dance, etc. – target different perceptual systems most researchers tend to focus on only one modality, especially vision or music. Good books on visual art are Semir Zeki’s Inner vision (Oxford University Press 1999) and Margaret Livingstone’s Vision and art (Harry N. Abrams 2002). An introduction to music research can be found in Isabelle Peretz & Roberts Zatorre (Eds.), The cognitive neuroscience of music (Oxford University Press 2003), and Daniel Livitin’s new book This is your brain on music (Dutton 2006). No books have yet been published on the cognitive neuroscience of literature – a great loss – but a few books on literature written from the point of view of cognitive science do exist, including Suzanne Nabantian’s Memory in literature (Palgrave Macmillan 2003) and Liza Zunshine’s Why we read fiction (Ohio State University Press 2006). This lack of books on literature written from the perspective of neuroscience is mostly due to the fact that, though there is a lot of neuroscientific research on language as such, almost no experiments yet have attempted to test specific literary questions. The same thing goes for dance and architecture as well (although some research appears to be forthcoming).
Research on emotion and art is a rather recent phenomenon and I know of only one book that explicitly deals with this topic, the book Music and emotion, edited by Patrick Juslin and John Sloboda (Oxford University Press 2001). I think there is reason to expect, though, that we will soon see several new books looking into it. (As Nancy Aiken reports in the comments to this post, her 1998 book, The biological origins of art, also deals with the question of how art elicits emotional responses. I am sorry to say I haven’t read that book yet, though.) In principle the field of emotion and art can be subdivided into two different problems: (1) How are emotions emulated by works of art? (2) How does the brain attach an aesthetic value to works of art? It is well known that a lot of art has human emotional life as its topic – think of romantic comedies, stories of vengeance and so on. Without the ability to induce these emotions in the viewer or reader such art works would simply be meaningless. So the ability of works of art to activate the brain’s emotional system is central to art. At the same time, art also activates the brain’s reward system, giving rise to such emotional reactions as feelings of beauty, ugliness, fascination, etc. Research on how such aesthetic emotions are computed by the brain is booming at the moment.
Finally, brain research on (artistic) creativity is still very much in its infancy. Several papers have been published recently investigating creative problem solving with fMRI and PET, but such research hasn’t really been translated into book presentations yet. The best new book on creativity and the brain is Kenneth Heilman’s Creativity and the brain (Psychology Press 2005). Readers interested in papers on artistic creativity will find several updated chapters in Colin Martindale, Paul Locher & Vladimir Petrov (Eds), Evolutionary and neurocognitive approaches to aesthetics, creativity and the arts (Baywood 2006) and Paul Locher, Colin Martindale & Leonid Dorfman (Eds), New directions in aesthetics, creativity and the arts (Baywood, in press).
I should also mention that in 2004 and 2005 Frank Clifford Rose and Dahlia Zaidel published two fascinating books collecting case stories and patient data casting further light on the issue of representation from the point of view of neuropsychology: Neurology and the arts (Imperial College Press 2004) and Neuropsychology of art (Psychology Press 2005).
Why did aesthetic cognition evolve in humans?
The evolutionary question of why aesthetic cognition evolved in humans is informed by several lines of evidence: archaeological findings, comparative studies of similarities and differences in cognitive behaviour between humans and other animals, genetics, etc. Researchers are often trying to identify either principles of sexual selection or natural selection as the driving force of the evolution of aesthetic cognition. The name most often associated with sexual selection – besides Darwin who first suggested it as a principle of evolution in The descent of man (1871) – is Geoffrey Miller who published the influential book The mating mind in 2000 (William Heinemann). The doyenne of adaptationist aesthetic studies (studies searching for natural selection forces) is Ellen Dissanayake who, apart from the two books already mentioned, published Art and intimacy in 2000 (at the University of Washington Press). The adaptationist approach has spawned quite a few publications in the last ten years, especially concerning the evolution of literature. Two good books on this topic is Joseph Carroll’s Literary darwinism (Routledge 2004) and the anthology The literary animal, edited by Jonathan Gottschall and D.S. Wilson (Northwestern University Press 2005).
In addition to these books a number of publications dealing specifically with music have appeared very recently. The first, an anthology edited by Nils Wallin, Björn Merker and Steven Brown, entitled The origins of music (The MIT Press 2001) contains a wealth of different approaches, whereas Steven Mithen’s book The singing neanderthals from 2005 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) promotes only one hypothesis.
As can be seen, the literature on bioaesthetics is rapidly growing and the probably only gain momentum in the coming years. It will be interesting to see if someone will attempt to synthesize research on all three questions, including research on all art forms, in one tome sometimes in the future.
UPDATE. I have changed the embarassing mistitling of Mithen’s book pointed out by Geraldine in the comments. I have also fixed a couple of spelling errors.
There are clearly other relevent books out there which I haven’t mentioned. I encourage you all to suggest additional good titles in the comments section. I would personally be most interested in hearing of French and German books relevant to neuroaesthetics from readers speaking these languages.