The Failure of Mysterian Complaints about Neuroesthetics


Mysterian explanation for human cognitive facilities have been around for millennia. Before the more modern discoveries of the structure and function of the human brain, mysterian explanations were very common. However, with the advent of newer technology and more accurate research programs, supernaturalist assertions about the mind has largely been discredited by the evidence. Increasingly, cognitive processes and behavior has been given a neurological basis. This can be considered a great triumph of modern science. However, there are people who dislike this approach. Two common archetypes are the religious zealot (who believes that the mind is a supernatural soul) and the secular mysterian (who while not going so far as to deny the material basis of mental events, assert that this or that cognitive feature can never be explained by science).

One such mysterian is the freelance science writer and consultant editor for Nature Philip Ball. A few days ago, he wrote a deeply flawed attack on the science of neuroesthetics entitled Neuroaesthetics is killing your soul that can be found here.

His basic assertions are the following: (1) neuroesthetics may cause an encroachment of objective standards for art or reactions to art and (2) neuroesthetics lacks operationalizations of key concepts, (3) various tangential complaints about appreciation of art not being just about beauty, (4) neuroesthetical explanations cannot differentiate the appreciation of art from being high on drugs or having sex and (5) science will never be able to fully explain human understanding and experience of art.

Let us look the credibility of these arguments, one by one. As will be clear at the end of this examination, Ball’s assertions and fears are not only unfounded but rather far-fetched.

Understanding the difference between facts and values

I do not necessarily advocate a strict separation between facts and values. Perhaps some values can be derived from facts. However, this does not mean that an arbitrary selected value can be inferred from any old fact. Ball makes the following assertion:

For one thing, to suggest that the human brain responds in a particular way to art risks creating criteria of right or wrong, either in the art itself or in individual reactions to it. Although it is a risk that most researchers are likely to recognize, experience suggests that scientists studying art find it hard to resist drawing up rules for critical judgments.

This is of course a nonsensical argument. Understanding how human brains response to art does not risk creating a criteria of right or wrong in the same way that understanding how human brains react to a blow to the head risks creating a moral standard for how brains ought to react to a direct hit. Even if some scientists were to make such weird claims, it could easily be refuted in the same way we now refute the claim that evolved behavior implies moral behavior. Descriptions are not automatically prescriptions. See how easy that was?

Ball defends his argument by citing a single case: the Nobel Prize winning chemist Wilhelm Ostwald thought that Titian had the wrong kind of blue. This is of course an anecdote and does not support the claim that “scientists studying art find it hard to resist drawing up rules”. Ostwald won the Nobel Prize for his work on things like reactions kinetics etc. but that does not mean that he is an expert on color. Even a Nobel Prize winning scientist does not need to be an expert in any other field (this has been discussed at length in my post Pseduoskepticism Among Previously Greater Scientists). Ostwald is not a neuroscientist, he spoke outside his field of expertise and it is just a single example that can hardly be extrapolated in the way Ball thinks it can.

Operationalization of key concepts

Ball makes the following claim:

Even if neuroaestheticists refrain from making similar value judgements, they are already close to falling prey to one. Conway and Rehding discuss this field primarily as an attempt to understand how the brain responds to beauty. As they point out, beauty is not a scientific concept — so it is not clear which questions neuroaesthetics is even examining.

So the argument Ball makes is essentially this: since there is no broadly agreed-upon operationalized definition of the concept of beauty, then neuroesthetics is a suspect field. The problem with this line of reasoning is that lacking a mainstream operationalization is the start of science, not the end. Beauty is not a scientific concept yet? Well, then let neuroscientists work on the problem and see if they can come up with a reasonable operationalized definition of beauty. In fact, some progress has already been made in this area, thanks to Ramachandran and Hirstein (1999). This publication put forward a model for the neurological experience of aesthetics, including things like the peak-shift effect, perceptual grouping and symmetry. While work remains to be done, Ball’s assertion can hardly be considered a categorical argument against neuroesthetics: some operationalizations do exist, and even if they did not, it would just mean that the field has not yet gotten there.

However, this was not the worst of the arguments Ball discussed.

Various unpersuasive tangential claims

But the problem runs deeper, because equating an appreciation of art with an appreciation of beauty is misleading. A concept of beauty (not necessarily ours today) was certainly important for, say, Renaissance artists, but until recently it had almost vanished from the discourse of contemporary art. Those who like the works of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys or Robert Rauschenberg generally do not appreciate them for their beauty.

Yes, a mature scientific research program on artistic aesthetics should not narrowly be about “beauty” as the term is used in everyday language. I doubt any neuroscientist believes that.

Scientists as a whole have always had conservative artistic tastes; a quest for beauty betrays that little has changed.

How does Ball know this? Does he not realize that he is making a very categorical statement about scientists as a group? Clearly, the group we call “scientists” represents a broad diversity of people with different genders, tastes, geographical origins, cultural influences etc. Attempting to polarizing the discussion by saying that scientists as a group has “always had conservative artistic tastes” is a huge disservice to the conversation.

In this regard, aesthetics is partly a question of culture and circumstance, not a fundamental quality of the brain. Reducing it to what is shared and general recalls exercises in producing the ‘perfect’ picture or song from poll averages, the results of which are (intentionally) hideous and banal.

Yes, the human experience of aesthetics is multifactorial. It is not just about brain chemistry but also not about culture. Human experience and behavior is the result of a complex, interacting web of an extraordinary amount of different factors from biology, psychology and both cultural and non-social environment. Ball makes a very trivial complaint and no serious biologist subscribes to the straw man he erects.

The actual goal of neuroesthetics, when we strip it of media hype, is probably going to be to identify shared generalities in the human experience of aesthetics. This does not mean that neuroscience threatens to reduce aesthetics to shared generalities. Even if human brains are very similar to each other, our individual brains differ every so slightly in structure and function. It is this individuality that contributes to the unique aspects of aesthetic experiences. This will not be eliminated by neuroesthetics. There is no need to fear hierarchical reductionism. On the contrary, neuroesthetics could help us illuminate the neurological underpinnings of these individual differences.

Art versus sex and drugs

And what will a neuroaesthetic ‘explanation’ consist of anyway? Indications so far are that it may be along these lines: “Listening to music activates reward and pleasure circuits in brain regions such as the nucleus accumbens, ventral tegmental area and amygdala”. Thanks, but no, thanks. Although it is worth knowing that musical ‘chills’ are neurologically akin to the responses invoked by sex or drugs, an approach that cannot distinguish Bach from barbiturates is surely limited.

Of course a new neuroscience research program is going to first explore the general features of whatever it is they are studying. It is only later, when this has been mapped out in sufficient detail that we will be able to reach a mainstream consensus position on details that may still be controversial right now.

The last sentence also betrays the scientific ignorance of Ball. We already know the main differences between pleasurable experiences from e. g. food, sex and art from that of drugs. Perhaps the most striking difference is in terms of kinetics. Drugs like cocaine cause a rapid increase in the levels of dopamine and because the experience is so strong, it contributes to a pathological classical conditioning. This generally does not occur for art, sex and food, although of course people can at least abuse the latter two as well. This is just an overview and there are many other known differences between the pleasurable experiences of everyday things like food compared with drugs.

The “Science-will-never-explain-X” viewpoint

Ball finishes off with a classic:

There are certain to be generalities in art and our response to it, and they can inform our artistic understanding and experience. But they will never wholly define or explain it.

Maybe not. But is that because of a fundamental inability to define or explain art, or is it because we may not have not gotten there yet in practice? It is very tiring to hear non-scientists claim with utmost certainty that this or that problem will never be solved by science. People use to think that the origin of biological diversity could never be solved by science. It has (evolution). People use to think that science could never explain the history of the universe. It has to some degree (big bang cosmology). What makes Ball’s so sure that the same could not happen to artistic understanding?

References and further reading

Ball, P. (2013). Neuroaesthetics is killing your soul. Nature. Accessed: 2013-03-30.

Ramachandran, V.S., Hirstein, W. (1999). The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(6-7): 15–51.

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2 replies

  1. I’d like to give a shout-out to the commenter Dahlia Zaidel who posted this gem on the piece by Ball:

    Aesthetic judgment takes place in the brain. Can you judge something as aesthetic or not without a brain? It is valid, then, to explore the neural underpinning of such judgments with various brain-related techniques. Whether or not “aesthetics is partly a question of culture and circumstance”, as Philip Ball states, you still need a neuroanatomical and neurofunctional underpinning for it. Not every scientist working on brain and aesthetics (“neuroaesthetics”) seriously thinks that art is the only way to determine the neural underpinning of aesthetics

    Well said Zaidel, well said.


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