Stuart Kelly: Art and science don’t mix

It’s all very well trying to analyse the brain’s response to a painting, but you can’t choose a Turner Prize winner by giving the judges an MRI scan

IT SEEMS as if every other week there is a news story about how scientists, with the help of magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography, are “unlocking the mysteries” of art. It has even spawned a hideous new neologism – “neuroaesthetics”, formally defined in 2002 as “the scientific study of the neural bases for the contemplation and creation of a work of art”.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal completed a study (of eight people) which concluded that music releases “mood-enhancing chemicals” into the brain; specifically, dopamine, a neurotransmitter which is also associated with being in love, eating chocolate and taking cocaine. Thirty people took part in an experiment at University College, London, which tried to determine what happens when people look at great art. They reported that there was a 10 per cent increase in blood-flow to specific parts of the brain when the subjects looked at “great art” (Constable, Ingres and Reni scored most highly; “ugly” paintings by Bosch, Damier and Massys less so). This is, apparently, the equivalent of looking at a loved one. More recently, an Oxford study undertaken between History of Art and Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics claimed to prove that when people were told that a painting was an imitation or forgery, they experienced less of the “warm glow of aesthetic pleasure” than if they were told they were looking at an original. Again, this enjoyment was compared in the media to “tasting good food or winning a bet”.

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This rampant scientism is even encroaching on books, with the rise of “neuro lit crit”. A Yale study is trying to determine if the brain reacts differently to reading Henry James or Harry Potter; Stanford University is pioneering “Darwinian literary criticism”, with the premise that since Jane Austen characters are looking for a suitable mate, there must be evolutionary forces at work; and at Utrecht, researchers claim to have shown that reading a short story about women’s rights in Algeria makes an individual more likely to sympathise with their plight than reading a non-fiction report on women’s rights in Algeria.

I have a strong suspicion that a great deal of this is unadulterated bunkum. The very fact that so many of the reports about these experiments fall back on cliché – the shiver down the spine, gooseflesh, a “feel good sensation” – seems to indicate it is a far less precise affair than the images of brains with specifically glowing sections might lead us to believe. One practitioner, Jonathan Gottschall, referred to it as “mapping Wonderland”.

I’m sure the researchers working in this field have a great deal of knowledge about brain chemistry and psychometric evaluation, but there seems to be a degree of naivety when it comes to art. Neuroaesthetics may be a very new field, and neurology may be relatively contemporary, but aesthetics has been studied for millennia. What use can these results be put to? If the blood doesn’t flow as predicted to someone’s brain when they look at a Turner, do we conclude that the scientific paradigm is wrong, or that something is wrong with that individual’s capacity for aesthetic appreciation? I can imagine a Philip K Dick scenario in which all critics are compulsorily tested to ensure we have the appropriate dopamine responses. Or perhaps the Turner Prize could simply hook up the judges to a MRI scanner and award the prize to whichever artist makes their respective brains twinkle most.

There are a number of unquestioned assumptions behind such experiments. It is unclear to me who, for example, decided in the UCL experiment that Guido Reni was somehow objectively less ugly than Hieronymus Bosch; but the claim lays bare a deeper misunderstanding about art: the idea that in the visual arts beauty is the highest aim. It is not just a legacy of Modernism that we have a more sophisticated idea about art’s aims. In the Renaissance, Caravaggio and Grunewald set out to shock, unsettle and challenge; as did Goya and Doré in the 19th century. Paintings by Poussin, David and Magritte invite a cerebral response as well as an emotive one. From revulsion to awe and from laughter to enigma, art is more than a matter of “beauty”.

It is also, of course, not really art that is being studied in such experiments, but a representation of a work of art. Walter Benjamin, one of the most perceptive and astute critics of the last century, was one of the first writers to notice this slippage, in his 1936 essay The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction. There is a profound difference between looking at Mark Rothko’s Black On Maroon/Red On Maroon series in the gallery – each canvas is more than two metres wide and long, and they have a cumulative, haunting effect when they are hung next to each other – and looking at them as two by three inch jpegs on a computer screen. Likewise, listening to Brahms’s German Requiem or The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy on the car stereo is a different experience to a live performance, when your lungs and bones seem to vibrate in sympathy. One of the ironies of the Oxford “authenticity” experiment is all the works the subjects were shown were, in a sense, fakes. This even extends into the world of literature. Reading a poem aloud at a wedding is a different matter from reading it in a library, or reading an Ian Rankin novel on the beach. What all these neuroaesthetic experiments fail to do is capture the actual experience of experiencing a work of art.

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art”, wrote Benjamin, “is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”. To Benjamin’s categories, we could add dimension, volume, human company (how different it is to see a painting on your own, or with other people) and physical comfort when what is being discussed is a misguided scientific attempt to measure the brain’s response to art.

Our responses to art are specific, and yet the scientific endeavours seem intent on making them universal and essentialist; as if the way a piece of art or music or literature works on us is akin to how a reflex hammer works on the knee’s patellar tendon. Each of us brings to a work of art our own histories, memories, connotations and partialities. We are not blank canvases onto which art is flung, or empty vessels into which it is poured. There is a wonderful essay, from 1966, by Laura Bohannan, about telling the story of Hamlet to members of the Tiv tribe in West Africa. The elders praise Claudius for marrying Gertrude – since a man should marry his brother’s widow – and are frustrated about whether Old Hamlet’s ghost is an omen from a witch, or a zombie. Responses to culture are not only conditioned by our background but change over time: your favourite artist at 16 is unlikely to be your favourite artist at 46.

The conclusions from these studies often seem self-evident to the point of banality. “When you look at art … there is strong activity in that part of the brain related to pleasure”. “Music is inextricably linked with our deepest rewards systems”. Part of the problem here is philosophical rather than aesthetic – or even critical – and rests on the confusion between the mind and the brain.

That science has made enormous progress in describing the brain is obvious; nowadays we apply our own images of technology to it – it’s a network, an “iCloud”. With a fine-enough scalpel we can supposedly isolate the smell of freshly creosoted wood or the wistfulness of looking at a photograph of the great-grandfather you never knew. But this conflates the material substance of the brain with the constructed nature of the mind. The brain doesn’t know it’s a brain; but the mind is defined by knowing it is a mind. The MRI scans of people reading, listening to music or looking at artworks reveal only one thing: that thinking is happening. What the thoughts are, and how they relate to the rest of the mind, cannot be shown by a computer simulated image or a string of physical observations.

The novelist Tom McCarthy, in conversation with the philosopher Simon Critchley, referred to the transfer of neuroscience to the cultural arena as “one of the biggest follies of our era … If you take a bit of [James] Joyce’s brain and put it under the microscope, it’s not going to explain Finnegans Wake.” Neuroaesthetics is “absolute idiocy… a form of absolute certainty that will flatten all the complexity of culture, and the beauty of it as well”. Or as Picasso said, when we love a woman we don’t start by measuring her limbs.