Conference report: Perspectives in Neuroaesthetics, Rome, June 13th. Objective vs. subjective beauties

I love conferences that go straight to the point. Lamberto Maffei, Presidente dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, briefly welcomed us to the Giornata Lincea Golgi, and reminded us that the overarching objective of the Golgi conferences was to integrate sciences and humanities. Ernesto Carafoli, one of our hosts together with Giovanni Berlucchi, didn’t waste time either. He was clear and concise from the start about the conference’s theme: We were there to present and discuss about beauty. “Not solve the matter of what beauty is” – he said, relieving us from a tremendous responsibility – “but to make headway on the specific topic of objective versus subjective beauty”.

The one-day program was packed with very interesting contributions, and we had time to debate several points raised during the discussion. If I had to select my five personal favorite presentations, however, I would choose the following:

  • Elkhonon Goldberg (New York University): How the brain deals with novelty and ambiguities.
  • Cinzia Di Dio (Università di Parma): Neural correlates of aesthetic experience in art.
  • Salvatore Aglioti (Sapienza Università di Roma): The beauty of the body.
  • Daniela Perani (Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele, Milano): Functional and structural connectivity for language and music processing at birth.
  • Jean-Pierre Changeux (Institut Pasteur, Paris): La beauté dans le cerveau: pour une neuroscience de l’art.

Instead of trying to summarize everyone’s presentations, I’ll tell you where you can find first-hand information on these scientists’ contributions. Although you can get a nice sample of this line of Goldberg’s work here, his work is very extensive, so visit his site too. Di Dio’s well-known fMRI experiment on aesthetic experience related with classical statues can be found here. Some of the work Aglioti presented at the conference can be read here. Perani’s very impressive demonstration of functional specializations for music processing in human newborns can be found here. A partial and very brief presentation of Changeux’s views can be accessed here, in his book The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge, and especially in his more recent book Du vrai, du beau, du bien.

Right after Carafoli’s presentation, it dawned on me more clearly than ever that Neuroaesthetics has not only inherited from Philosophical Aesthetics, among other disciplines, some of its questions, but also some of its most ancient entrenched positions and long-lasting controversies. In an enlightening paper, Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz (1963) retraces the objective-subjective controversy in aesthetics back to the Pythagoreans and the Sophists. So the question is whether we should expect neuroaesthetics to seek the neural foundations of people’s experience of things that are beautiful in themselves, or of people’s experience of things that they personally consider to be beautiful. Both options are not equivalent. One would entail the recognition of a property of the objects, and the other the construction of personal preference.

As a psychologist trained in Perception and Memory it is difficult for me to accept a purely objectivist stance. Perception is not the passive recording of information out in the environment. James Pomerantz defined perception as “the complex sequence of processes by which we take the information received from our senses and then organize and interpret it, which in turn allows us to see and hear the world around us as meaningful, recognizable objects and events with clear locations in space and time”.

In a sense, thus, perception is a constructive process. Although it does begin with sensory information, it’s purpose is not to render the world as it is, but to provide us with an image that we can understand and is coherent with our prior knowledge about the world. In order to do so, perception is guided by inference, hypotheses, and other top-down processes, as well as context, which can strongly influence the appearance of an object.

Psychologists have illustrated how much perception relies on assumptions and inferences by using illusions to playing tricks on it. One of the many illusions considered by psychologists is the well-known Müller–Lyer illusion. Objectively, both horizontal lines are the same length. Subjectively, though, the top line seems to be longer.

Surprisingly, these illusions, and presumably the assumptions that govern them, are susceptible to learning and other environmental factors, accentuating the importance of the subject and prior experience even in such basic perceptual processes. If people are unable to accurately perceive the objective lengths of the lines above, is it reasonable to expect them to perceive the objective beauty –which presumably amounts to more than line length– of complex an intricate objects, like works of art?

I don’t mean to say that the objective properties are irrelevant. I myself have done work on the effects of object features, such as symmetry and complexity, on people’s aesthetic preferences. However, even Daniel Berlyne, the father of modern empirical aesthetics, acknowledged the organizing and interpretative principles of perception when he wrote that “The collative variables are actually subjective, in the sense that they depend on the relations between physical and statistical properties of stimulus objects and processes within the organism. A pattern can be more novel, complex, or ambiguous for one person than for another or, for the same person, at one time than at another” (Berlyne, 1971, p. 19). Even early applications of information theory to psychology revealed that “the amount of information contained in a stimulus (from the experimenter’s point of view) may be varied greatly without changing the apparent complexity of the stimulus” (Attneave, 1957, p. 225).

Maybe, as in many spheres of perception, aesthetic experiences arise from the interaction of diverse object-driven and subject-driven processes. And, maybe, creating experimental conditions that aim to tease these apart will only end up removing that which is truly aesthetic from the experience.

Attneave, F. (1957). Physical determinants of the judged complexity of shapes. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 53, 221-227.

Berlyne, D. E. (1971). Aesthetics and Psychobiology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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