When misleading lines are drawn

shimamuraMuch of Hutton and Kelly’s unfortunate review of Shimamura’s Experiencing art rests on a biased and misguided image of the current cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics. The reviewers’ first grievance is that the book fails to “play a critical role in establishing neuroaesthetics as a subject worth taking seriously”. Such an expectation—unreasonable for a clearly introductory book—only reveals the extent to which they disregard a large body of work on the neural basis of aesthetic and art appreciation whose worth has long been taken seriously, from Burke to our days.

As the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics has gained momentum, scientists have engaged philosophers, artists and art historians in lively arguments. Contrary to Hutton and Kelly’s hyperbolic caricature of “territorial squabbles”, such encounters have mostly taken the form of enriching scholarly discussions. They make their case by overlooking recent collaborations between artists, architects, philosophers, art historians, psychologists, and neuroscientists to understand the nature of artistic and aesthetic appreciation. They even neglect to mention the book Aesthetic Science, a volume coedited by Shimamura himself, the first third of which is devoted to philosophical perspectives.

Finally, Hutton and Kelly support their views with philosopher Alva Noë’s reproach of neuroaesthetics for not having shown anything interesting or surprising about art. But why should neuroaesthetics be judged on the basis of how well it answers philosophical questions about art? Art poses a wealth of different questions. Some are philosophical and others are historical. Yet, others have to do with the biological underpinnings of the cognitive and emotional processes involved in the creation and appreciation of art. And these are the questions the cognitive neuroscience of art has set out to answer. Some philosophers may find such issues uninteresting, but does this mean that they are less worthy of scientific research?


Hutton and Kelly call for responsible advocates for the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics, but there is an equally pressing need for responsible commentators, who keep up to date with the field’s progress, who are able to make their case without building straw men, and avoid judging the whole field based on unrepresentative hand-picked instances. Shimamura’s volume constitutes another stepping-stone for the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics. Its service is to be improved upon, just as William James thought of his own book The Principles of Psychology: “A great chance for some future psychologue to make a greater name than Newton’s, but who then will read the books of this generation? Not many, I throw. Meanwhile they must be written”.

Marcos Nadal & Helmut Leder

2 thoughts on “When misleading lines are drawn

  1. Why can’t “the biological underpinnings of the cognitive and emotional processes involved in the creation and appreciation of art” be thoroughly covered in disciplines like the neuroscience of perception and emotion? Or just a general neuroscience of creative processes or insight?

    It seems like much of the time neuroaesthetics research relies less on art and more on aesthetically pleasing stimuli anyway (which granted often overlap)–so why bring the confusing world of art into a strictly scientific endeavor?

  2. Hi Curious. Those are good questions. A “cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics” is justified for the same reason we have a subfield of “social neuroscience” that studies the neural underpinnings of empathy and moral decision making. Emotion and perception are essential ingredients in empathy and morality, but they’re not the end of the story. Similarly, you can use art to study the neuroscience of emotion, and you can use art to study neural processes underlying perception. These will be wonderful studies. But what makes an experience aesthetic is not just emotion, or just perception, or just that it is meaningful. What makes an experience an aesthetic one has to do with the way emotion, perception and meaning come together; with the way they interact in wonderfully unique ways. This is what we hope to understand one day. Admittedly, we are still far from that, though I think we’re on the right track.

    And we bring art into the equation because it is a common source for aesthetic experiences in people. There is no reason why art cannot be understood from a scientific perspective. One way to clarify some of the confusion is to distinguish two fields that overlap slightly. On the one hand, we could think of the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics, whose focus is the aesthetic experience, which is elicited by a broad range of objects and situations beyond–but including–art. On the other hand, we could have a cognitive neuroscience of art, which focuses on the neural underpinnings of the creation and appreciation of art, which has to do with many aspects beyond–but including–aesthetics. One could envision both fields developing independently, although they would overlap when studying the biological aspects that enable humans to appreciate the aesthetics of artworks.

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