Neuro-aesthetic: the marriage of Art to Science

The human brain is one of the most complex and charming masterpieces of all times and, for this reason, it is also the most mysterious and inscrutable one. The web of its neurotransmitters is similar to a work of art, a canvas created by the chaotic genius of Pollock, and the variety of its neural responses is like the palette of a lively artist, a piece of pop-art designed by the psychedelic Andy Warhol.

The parallelism between art and neuroscience is not causal: this strange combination of paint and grey matter has first appeared in the middle of the XX century when Semir Zekir, a professor of neurobiology of the University College of London, coined the neologism “neuro-aesthetic”. This term is referred to an innovative branch of neuroscience, dedicated to the analysis of the human behaviour in front of an artistic experience. Neuroscientists began to be interested in art, since, according to them, it is an incomparable source of information regarding the operations of the “visual brain”. The latter is a task performed by the human brain, capable of elaborating images and giving them a precise meaning, which varies from person to person, according to their personality and history.

Furthermore, neuro-aesthetic is devoted to the study of what leads a person to consider a piece of art either pleasant or unpleasant. Neuroscientists have studied the response of the brain to contradicting aesthetic judgments, finding out that it is completely alike: when people look at a piece of art and find it pleasant, their orbitofrontal meridional cortex is activated, otherwise, in case of a negative judgement, the left motor cortex is the one involved in the response.

Nevertheless, despite knowing the physiological effects of the aesthetic judgement, the real cause is still a big mystery. Yet, a first explication has started to develop in recent times: the involvement inspired in people by art, that is likely to be considered one of the main bases of the aesthetic judgement, may be caused by the so called “mirror neurons”. Just like the object from which they derive their name, mirror neurons are capable of simultaneously elaborating a representation of the acts of their owner and of the ones of external people.

At a first approach, their relation with art can appear pretty nebulous, but a deeper analysis can help to understand it: art is the replication of reality, of what people live, touch and see every day, and, when mirror neurons recognize this familiar refrain, they ignite the “incarnate simulation”. This process is capable of mimicking the actions represented by a piece of art and inducing people to consider it as if it was performed by themselves. So, when the incarnate simulation begins, observers can either recognize themselves in the protagonists of the piece of art or in the artist, if the composition lacks a human component.

These concepts, elaborated by neuro-aesthetic, can be used as tools to analyse other types of reactions provoked by art, like the Stendhal Syndrome or the feeling of hate that leads some people to perpetrate acts of destruction and vandalism.

The Stendhal Syndrome, first described by the homonymous author in his work “Rome, Naples and Florence” of 1817, is a physical and mental disease caused by the emotional and aesthetic power of art. People affected by this syndrome experience a sense of annihilation before artistic masterpieces, with the manifestation of either faintness, euphoria, hallucinations or terror. In some way, this condition can be explained through the occurrence of an excessively realistic incarnate simulation, mixed with the extreme artistic sensibility of some people.

Coming to the second example, unfortunately, there are many cases of vandalization of art; some of the most famous are those perpetrated by Pietro Cannata, namely the destruction of one feet of the David by Michelangelo and the disfigurement though a marker of both the frescos by Mantegna contained in the Duomo of Prati and the canvas Watery Paths by Jackson Pollock. Cannata was an ex-student of aesthetic and a failed painter, and probably his frustration and repressed hatred, awakened by the incarnate simulation, were the main causes of his actions; imagining himself as the author of such perfect pieces of art made him aware of his artistic ineptitude and desirous of ransom, achieved through destruction.

Often science and art are considered as opposite realities, while they are just the two sides of a single coin, even if, still today, some of their relations remain a perfect and untouchable mystery, that does not necessarily need an explication.



– – “Che cos’è la sindrome di Stendhal”

- – “Lo sfregio e la follia: cosa induce a deturpare le opere d’arte”, Ursula Valmori, 02/12/2016

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