Archive for the ‘neuroaesthetics’ Category

KonferenceplakatI am one of the organizers of a three day conference on neuroaesthetics that takes place at the University of Copenhagen from September 24 to September 26. If you are interested in the relation between art and the brain please consider joining us for what I believe will be an exiting event.

Neuroaesthetics is a fairly new field of inquiry. This conference is convened to discuss the state of the art of the field. It will bring together a number of leading researchers working on all aspects of neuroaesthetics. The conference will include sessions on Visual Art, Music, Literature, Dance and Film, Aesthetic Preferences, Neuropsychology of Art, Experimental Aesthetics, and Evolutionary Aesthetics, as well as one poster session. You can download the full program here.

Among the many great speakers who will speak at the conference I will only mention a few: Anjan Chatterjee (University of Pennsylvania), Ellen Dissanayake (University of Washington), Karl Grammer (Ludwig-Boltzmann-Institute for Urban Ethology), Torben Grodal (University of Copenhagen), Andrea R. Halpern (Bucknell University), Stefan Koelsch (University of Sussex), Helmut Leder (University of Vienna), David Miall (University of Alberta),  Christa Sütterlin (The Max-Planck-Society), and Dahlia W. Zaidel (UCLA). There will be many more. Please take a look at the whole program at our conference website where you can also register for the event.


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In March, the Center for Academic Research & Training in Anthropogeny hosted a conference on the “Evolutionary Origins of Art and Aesthetics”. The list of speakers was pretty impressive. Luckily, the lectures were taped and are now available on You Tube. Here is a video with lectures by Antonio Damasio on emotion, Helen Fisher on love, and Isabelle Peretz on music. I will probably post some of the other talks at a later point.


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neuroaesthetics coverI am sure loads of you neuroscience buffs out there will be interested in hearing that a new book on neuroaesthetics has just been published. Edited by myself and Oshin Vartanian, it is published by Baywood. You can buy it directly from Baywood, or from retailers such as Amazon. To learn more about the book, read the introduction [pdf].

Research into the neurobiology of aesthetic behavior, one of the truly unique human traits, has undergone a revolution in the last ten years. In large part due to the possibility of imaging the human brain in various non-invasive ways it has become possible to investigate the neural mechanisms behind the perception of visual and auditive art, creative behavior, or aesthetic valuation of works of art. Quite a few psychologists and neuroscientists have heeded this call.The result is an ever-increasing number of research reports in peer-reviewed journals. Still, many of these results remain unknown, even overlooked. To take an example, when science writer Jonah Lehrer recently wrote a short article entitled “Unlocking the mysteries of the artistic mind” in Psychology Today, he restricted his discussion to a rehash of Semir Zeki [pdf] and V.S. Ramachandran’s [pdf] two famous papers published ten years ago in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. True, these two papers in many ways ignited the recent interest in neuroaesthetics, but much have happened in the decade since, and one of our ambitions in publishing this new book lies in the highlighting of this body of work.

Besides a lack of publicity, the field of neuroaesthetics is also marred by two other concerns. The first and most important is a lack of a coherent theory of what neuroaesthetics amounts to and, consequently, which kind of questions neuroaesthetics should be concerned with. This kind of methodological befuddlement is hardly unheard of in the early days of a new scientific field, but to make any headway naturally such questions need to be raised and debated. A central aim of the book is to further this debate. Secondly, research on the major art forms are too separated from each other. Scientists interested in visual art seem to know very little about the work going on in the labs of music researchers, and vice versa. To rectify this misère a little, and to insist that neuroaesthetics encompass all art forms, we have included chapters on visual art, music, literature, and film in the book. (If the book had been put together today, it would also had been possible to include chapters on dance and architecture as distinct forms of visual art.)

I shall not be the judge of whether or not the book accomplishes these goals. But I do hope that some of you will take the time to take a look at it.


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From time to time we bring you the quirky side of neuroscience here at BrainEthics. Now, we discover a funny little study in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging that bears the attractive title “The neural basis of unconditional love” by Mario Beauregard et al. Indeed, the study of the neural bases of preference formation, aesthetics and even love have gained much momentum since this field started just a few years ago. Fields such as neuroaesthetics and neuroeconomics seem to overlap when it comes to these studies, in which the core aim is to study the fundamental processes underlying preference formation.

In the study, Beauregard and colleagues wanted to establish the neural bases of unconditioned love. So the first tricky thing would be to define and operationalise what is meant by “unconditioned love”. IMO, such kind of love is the affectionate feelings one would call religious love, or ultimate altruism…(if such ever exists).But following the name, it does suggest a broader definition of affectionate feelings towards a person (or just any thing?) regardless of their origin, persona, deeds or misdeeds, family bonds and so forth.

Claimed amygdala activation, which rather looks like collateral sulcus/entorhinal cortex... (from Bartels & Zeki 2004)

Claimed amygdala deactivation during maternal love, which rather looks like collateral sulcus/entorhinal cortex... (from Bartels & Zeki 2004)

Similar studies of strong affectional feelings to other persons have been conducted recently. For example, in a study of maternal love (PDF) by Bartels and Zeki, mothers were scanned while looking at baby faces, in which sometimes their own newborn’s face was shown. The researchers found that when looking at their own babies, compared to looking at other infants, mothers demonstrated stronger activation in regions such as the ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens, ventro-anterior cungulate cortex and fusiform cortex.

In addition, and to the researchers’ surprise, they also found stronger bilateral activation of the anterior insula, a structure typically involved in aversive functions (but I will not follow the speculative account of the researchers on this activation). Deactivations were claimed to be found in regions such as the amygdala – which really is not amygdala, but rather collateral sulcus, judging from their figure (see figure on right). Isn’t is strange that prominent researchers such as Semir Zeki goes so wrong in neuroanatomy? The consequences from arguing for deactivation in the entorhinal cortex, compared to the amygdala, is dramatic. Instead of talking about emotions, one would be more prone to talk about complex visual processing. Yes, it does matter where you think your blobs are…

So what did Beauregard and colleagues do differently? First, they needed to describe the uncondition love construct, which they describe as:

(…) distinct from the empathy and compassion constructs. Empathy is commonly defined as an affective response that stems from the apprehension of another’s emotional state (e.g., sadness, happiness, pain), and which is comparable to what the other person is feeling (Eisenberg, 2000). This affective response is not unconditional and does not involve feelings of love. Compassion refers to an awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the desire to alleviate that suffering (Steffen and Masters, 2005). In contrast to compassion, unconditional love is not specifically associated with suffering.

Hm, not a particularly good definition to go hunting for neural correlates to. Nevertheless, the aim was to study the neural basis of unconditional love, something that has not been done before. So how did they do it? First, the authors had to select the subjects:

Participants were assistants in two l’Arche communities located in the Montreal area. L’Arche communities (founded by Jean Vanier in 1964) are places where those with intellectual disabilities, called core members, and those who share life with them, called assistants, live together. This special population was selected on the basis that one of the most important criteria to become an assistant is the capacity to love unconditionally. (We recruited) assistants with a very high capacity for unconditional love. We ensured that all recruited individuals understood the meaning of this form of love (based on the construct presented in Section 1) and found their work at l’Arche (community help service) very gratifying.

The hypotheses were 1) unconditional love is rewarding, and therefore it was expected to be associated with activation of the VTA and dorsal
striatal regions; and 2) since unconditional love experientially differs to a large extent from romantic love and maternal love, it was predicted that this form of love would be mediated by brain regions not involved in romantic love and maternal love. I particularly hate this second hypothesis: it’s not really a hypothesis, because ANY activation that is “different” can confirm this hypothesis. If it’s a fishing trip, let us know…

Let me try a bit of further deconstructionism of this study. In the methods section, it is described how the subjects were instructed to look at unfamiliar faces and either attempt to feel unconditioned love or think about the person’s intellectual capacity (sic.).

A blocked-design was used to examine brain activity during a passive viewing (PV) condition (control task) and an unconditional love (UL) condition (experimental task).

Note: using block designs are typically used to study differences in state (e.g. comparing neural activation during different attentional states).

Five blocks of pictures were presented during both conditions. Each block consisted of a series of four pictures. Each picture was presented during 9 s (pre-experimentation revealed that, on average, participants needed that long to feel unconditional love toward the individuals depicted in the pictures).

OK, so some of the activation differences between the UL condition and the PV condition may be due to task difficulty and reaction time, and not, as they would have wanted, the nature of the task.

Blocks were separated by periods of 30 s. Pictures depicted individuals (children and adults) with intellectual disabilities. These individuals were unfamiliar to the participants. Instructional cue words (“View”, “Unconditional love”) printed in white first appeared in the center of a black screen for 2 s. While the picture remained on the screen, participants performed the tasks specified by the prior cue. In the PV blocks, participants were instructed to simply look at the individuals depicted in the pictures. In the UL blocks, participants were instructed to self-generate a feeling of unconditional love toward the individuals depicted in the pictures.

OK, there are many assumptions here… Just to illustrate, do the following for me: close your eyes and for 20 seconds DO NOT THINK ABOUT AN ELEPHANT!!! What happens? Well, you’d probably be surprised to see that elephant does really appear in your mind even if you try to suppress it. Thought suppression studies have demonstrated this through the past many decades. So IMO, what the study might also be about is thought suppression – or comparing elephant thinking to elephant-suppression activation. IOW, I’m not sure that the viewing condition did not evoke some “unconditioned love”-suppression.

Therefore, the UL task involved both a cognitive component (self-generation) and an emotional–experiential component (feeling). Blocks were presented in alternation (PV, UL, PV, UL, etc.). At the end of each block for both experimental conditions, a four-point scale (1 = “No feeling”, 2 = “Some feeling”, 3 = “Moderate”, 4 = “Very intense”) for rating the extent to which they currently felt unconditional love was presented for 3 s.

Strangely, what the researchers found when doing the UL minus PV comparison, was stronger activation in “the middle insula, superior parietal lobule, right periaqueductal gray, right globus pallidus (medial), right caudate nucleus (dorsal head), left ventral tegmental area and left rostro-dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.” This can be seen in the figure below:

Regions showing stronger activation during "unconditional love" condition

Regions showing stronger activation during "unconditional love" condition

So what are the interpretations of these results? Does it surprise you that both hypotheses were confirmed? First, that unconditioned love was related to reward structure activation was not surprising. But the researchers over-interpret the results: they claim that this is prima facie proof that unconditioned love is rewarding. But hey, the results can just as well suggest that the unconditioned love state is just a framing of how we look at faces (for example, imaging you are either told that person/face X is a wonderful person OR an evil sadistic terrorist).

Second, is it surprising that they also found “activation not found for maternal or romantic love”? Not to me: the tasks are different, the selection of subjects are different, the confounds are plenty…

And what about that strong and bilateral insula activation? Yes, it’s right that it confirms the second hypothesis…but how does the insula play a role in unconditioned love? As I noted in my previous post, it does seem to play an important role in negative emotions and aversion. Here, the authors assert:

There is increasing evidence that the insula is implicated in the representation of bodily states that colour conscious experiences (or “background feelings”) (…) it is plausible that the middle insular activation noted during the UL condition was associated with the somatic and visceral responses elicited by the presented pictures.

Uh yes, but this is typically reflected in negative emotions. So how is unconditioned love related to aversion? Or maybe one could relate the findings to a recent review that suggest a role for the insula in addiction and urges? I don’t know, if you’re into speculating, go with whatever seems to work… Basically, this handwaving interpretations is not much better than old-style phrenology or hand-reading. They may be right, but only because they make the right guesses from previous studies.

Briefly put, although we enjoy the quirky side of neuroscience, and how it can be used to explore human nature, we at BrainEthics are also sceptical at the level at which quirky science turns into flaky science.


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I don’t know about you, but I often get fascinated by the mere visualization of brain imaging data. Aside with the neuroimaging blobologies, but looking at more detailed visualizations of brain parts and processes strike me as merely beautiful and fascinating. And, as the fascination of looking at a star may be deepened by knowing more about that exact star (e.g., it’s the leftovers from a supernova), knowing what you see in the image of the brain may provide more understanding of what we see, and why it looks just that way.

Just as with this cover image from a recent issue of Cerebral Cortex, in which the caption says:

Photomontage showing two consecutive coronal sections of an E12 mouse embryo after 24 hours of being in toto culture. After a CFDA injection into the rostro-medial telencephalic wall, labeled cells (green) migrate tangentially by the ventral telencephalon and reach the olfactory cortex, which is immunohistochemically stained against calretinin (red) and calbindin (pseudocolor orange). The blue color shows the DAPI unspecific staining of nuclei. Superimposed, the black and white figure shows an embryo head injected with the fluorescent tracer DiI (red).

Or, put more simple, it’s an image showing how cells migrate during embryonic development. The article can be found here.


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Since May 8 Nature has published nine essays – one per week – on contemporary music research. Reflecting the recent extraordinary advances made in our understanding of how the brain perceives music many of the essays focus on results coming out of neuroscience labs (although they also mention workbased on anthropology, acustics, statistics, as well as other disciplines). Among the authors are some of today’s preeminent musicologists, including David Huron, Laurel Trainor, Aniruddh Patel, and John Sloboda. Together, the nine essays touch upon a number of music research’s hardest and most intriguing questions such as the question of why we prefer some combination of pitches and rhythms to other, or the question of whether or not any of the processing mechanisms underlying the experience of music are shared with other cognitive abilities, expecially language.

With the publication of the last essay Nature has made all nine essays available for free. Go to this site where it is also possible to download a special edition of the Nature Podcast containing interviews with two of the authors, Philip Ball and John Sloboda.

I spend the morning reading all nine essays, and while they are all highly engaging I couldn’t help thinking that we still deperately need a comprehensive review of the whole range of neuroscience research on music conducted in the last five or ten years. The only book even attemting to introduce this body of work in a popular form is Daniel Levitin‘s This is Your Brain on Music, and I think it is fair to say that this book only manages to cover but a fraction of the many, many exiting results currently being published. Could this be a job for the incomparable Carl Zimmer?


The photo shows some 70.000 people convening at the Roskilde Festival here in Denmark to enjoy four days of music. Why?

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klee.jpgFeel free to attend this meeting:

Kunst og hjerne

Vil neurobiologien blive det nye paradigme for forståelsen af, hvad kunst er?

Et af æstetikkens vanskeligste problemer er kunstnerisk kreativitet. Man kan forestille sig, at dette problem kunne belyses ved et aktivt samarbejde mellem hjerneforskere og kunstnere.

Sigtet med dette seminar er at føre kunstnere og neuroæstetikere sammen til en diskussion af konsekvenserne af de senere års forskning i hjernens funktioner. Hvilken rolle spiller centrale neurale processer som perception, hukommelse og følelser for kunstnerens skabende proces?
I 1990’erne havde den postmoderne filosofi en enorm indflydelse på kunstnernes konkrete praksis.

Vil neuroæstetikken kunne få en lignende indflydelse?

Tid: 23. april 2008 kl. 10.00-16.00

Sted: Lokale 22.0.11, Københavns Universitet Amager


Hvad kunstneren kan lære hjerneforskeren – og omvendt
Martin Skov, MR-Afdelingen, Hvidovre Hospital
Verden forklaret for børn
Peter Holst Henckel, billedkunstner
Det litterære dyr. Om Darwin og litteraturteori
Jesper Egholm, Institut for Litteraturhistorie, Aarhus Universitet
Den følsomme fibers frihed. Fysiologi, æstetik og politik hos Denis Diderot
Anne Fastrup, Institut for Kunst og Kultur, Københavns Universitet
Er bevidstheden en fejl, evolutionen har begået? En synapsesnaps til det andet ben
Morten Søndergaard, digter
Om evolutionsæstetik og hjernens fylogenese
Jon O. Lauring, Institut for Kunst og Kultur, Københavns Universitet
Peter Døssing & Aslak Vibæk, billedkunstnere
Opsamling og diskussion

Admission free! Registration not necessary.


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old-flute.jpgBack in September I briefly mentioned two recent papers in Music Perception on the evolution of music: Justus & Hutsler and McDermott & Hauser. As Darwin famously noted in The Descent of Man, from an evolutionary standpoint our ability to make music is “among the most mysterious with which [man] is endowed”. It is clear enough why being able to communicate through language would be an evolutionary benefit, but music? What adaptive purpose could the ability to produce and appreciate music possibly serve? Well, Justus & Hutsler and McDermott & Hauser are only a few of a surge of researchers to recently take a crack at Darwin’s old mystery. (For a great introduction to the field, see The Origins of Music, an anthology edited by Nils Wallin, Björn Merker, and Steven Brown.) However, I just now became aware that Music Perception has since published a string of very interesting commentaries to these two papers, including comments by Ian Cross, Björn Merker, Tecumseh Fitch, and Anirrudh Patel. There’s even a reply to the commentaries by McDermott and Hauser. I highly recommend taking a look at them all.


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hammershoei-149.gifPeople have been kind enough to mention my bioaesthetics primer on various other blogs. On AlphaPsy, a new blog dedicated to cognitive and evolutionary anthropology, a short discussion even broke out, provoked by this comment to my post. (I will post my “defence” of neuroaesthetic here in a couple of days!) Through this discussion I learned that a group of French philosophers is starting a new journal to be called Art and Neurosciences Review. According to its website, the Art and Neurosciences Review aims to

serve as an interdisciplinary platform where all interested in art can discuss key themes at the junction of aesthetics and empirical sciences – every aspect of what we might call “the cognitive revolution” of aesthetics and art.


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pamuk.jpgA lot of our fellow science bloggers covered this year’s Nobel Prizes in medicine, physics, and economics. So, let me take the opportunity to congratulate Orhan Pamuk, the recipient of this year’s literary prize. The literary prize is often critized for being controversial, and most people agree that not all the recipients over the years have deserved the prize (Pearl S. Buck, anyone?). The criteria for awarding the literary prize is very different from the criteria for awarding the scientific prizes, though. Whereas it is possible to meassure a scientist’s contribution more or less objectively, according to how accepted his findings are, over time, to the scientific community, literary prizes are awarded for the perceived aesthetic value of a book, and aesthetic value is always in the eye of the beholder. We know this not only from the countless top ten lists floating around on the internet, invariably different!, but also from a century of experimental testing. It is simply impossible to find a work of art universally adored by all humans on this planet. (There might be some universal body features, such as facial traits, deemed pleasant or attractive by everybody, but that’s another story.)

Why is this so? Well, a number of imaging studies have begun to cast light on which parts of the brain are involved in attaching aesthetic value to works of art. It turns out that aesthetic value chiefly stems from a network of subcortical, limbic and frontal regions, including the caudate nucleus, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex. The workings of these structures may be under influence of several factors: personality (cf. the Hariri studies we have been discussing here on the blog), expertise, mood, age, task, stimulus complexity – and, of course, cognitive factors may modulate them in various ways. We don’t know yet how aesthetic values are formed in detail – and, thus, we don’t know yet why people’s taste differ – but the upshot of  the current research is, that a particular aesthetic judgment (Orhan Pamuk is Nobel material!) is the consequence of a rather complex neural process, malleable over time.

Then, why should we give out literary prizes? Some critics have lamented that, since aesthetic values really can’t be determined objectively, aesthetic prizes is really an attempt to impose value. I suppose there is something correct about this view; we fight all the more over aesthetic value because it can’t be settled objectively. This is not always a bad thing, though. As the saying goes, a big prize may attract attention to an underappreciated author or artist. So literary prizes may have a function, even if they are basically without merit. At least, since I think Pamuk is a great novelist, I am happy that he got the Nobel!

A final word on aesthetic value. Many of today’s articles mention Snow as Pamuk’s chef d’oevre, probably because of its political content. To new readers, though, I would recommend starting with The Black Book and My Name is Red. These two books are, according to my reward system, Pamuk’s undisputable masterpieces!


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