Can we use neuroscience to study art?


Until fairly recently most individuals studying art have been art historians, artists and philosophers. Yet, we can observe a new group of individuals examining art – neuroscientists. Neuroscientists have been studying art for some time now, a field called neuro-aesthetics. Researchers such as VS Ramachandran and Semir Zeki examine the neurological basis of aesthetic experiences and are trying to define a neurobiological definition of art. Ramachandran wrote in 1999:

“The purpose of art, surely, is not merely to depict or represent reality—for that can be accomplished very easily with a camera—but to enhance, transcend, or indeed even to distort reality. … What the artist tries to do (either consciously or unconsciously) is to not only capture the essence of something but also to amplify it in order to more powerfully activate the same neural mechanisms that would be activated by the original object.”

He is arguing that that the works of art activate neural processes that are typically activated when we see objects, yet more powerfully. An effect called ‘peak shift’. Taking an example of classical Indian sculptures of female form, he argues that

“there may be neurons in the brain that represent sensuous round feminine form as opposed to angular masculine form and the artist has chosen to amplify the “very essence” of being feminine by moving the image even further along the male/female spectrum. The result of these amplifications is a “super stimulus” in the domain of male/female differences.”

In other words – art is caricature, and the underlying biological function is the peak shift. Yet, this rather reductionist view is highly disputed amongst some. John Hyman, in this seminal article “Art and Neuroscience” instead sees three additional flaws with Ramachandran’s theory:

“First, Ramachandran seems to have misunderstood the peak shift effect. Second, the theory is not really about art at all. It is really about why men are attracted to women with big breasts. And third, the theory is based on an extremely limited knowledge of art. … The point I want to underline is that Ramachandran’s theory of art (we can call it the Baywatch Theory of Art) doesn’t distinguish between a work of art and the kind of object that it represents. For example, if it doesn’t distinguish between a sculpture that represents a woman with big breasts and a woman with big breasts. And it follows that the theory cannot be telling us what “the key to understanding what art really is. … Ramachandran’s theory of art therefore fails three times over. It fails because he has missed this fundamental point about what art is; it fails because his generalization about what works of art represent is not borne out by the facts; and it fails because even if the generalization were true, the peak shift mechanism would not explain why”.

So the questions we have to ask ourselves now is can neuroscience contribute something out our understanding of the visual arts? We think yes! And like Hyman said – “progress is only possible if we build on the intellectual tradition we have inherited. This is especially true of neuroscience, which is a nineteenth-century subject rooted in the philosophy of Locke and Kant. In neuroscience, and in psychology in general, philosophy is unavoidable; and if we ignore the philosophy of the past, we shall simply reinvent the wheel. In other words, our ideas will be based on mediocre and amateurish philosophy of our own.”


THECUBE London is a workspace in the heart of East London. Our members range from a wide variety of backgrounds, including the arts, sciences and technology. We think that there is something to be said for Neuroscience and Art, yet maybe by working together, learning from each other, and and developing theories together. Over the last eight years we have held residencies for artists and neuroscientists to come together and explore particular subject matters via their different lenses. If you are interested in seeing how this results in, come and check out Cognitive Sensations. Cognitive sensations is an exhibition and events programme, where artists and scientists explore potential neurological effects of digital technology.