That may seem like a strange question to ask on a blog that is largely devoted to explaining how the cognitive sciences are relevant to the humanities (which I don't doubt as a general statement, although I often find the particulars disappointing). So here's my gut feeling : neuroaesthetics might be a bit premature, and even border on disciplinary imperialism (ie, yet another attempt to invade the rightful territory of some other discipline).

Let me explain. Most of what I've read of neuroscientists or psychologists writing about art (mostly the visual arts, music is another issue) has struck me as either simplistic or obvious. I seem to find more insights about art in phenomenological or historical accounts by E.H. Gombrich or D. Arasse, or even in the overwrought and pompous prose of Elie Faure, than in anything Ramachandran has to say about the topic - although I respect him immensely for his work in the neuroscience of perception.



One telling sign of disciplinary imperialism is when people simply ignore the really hard questions. Here's a quote from the post on Brainethics :"Much debate on "the nature" of art takes its departure from wholly theoretical considerations of what features define art. From a biological perspective it is much more interesting to know what people actually do when they create of experience art.".

There is of course a point when endless quarrels about theoretical issues start to paralyse a field. But a minimum requirement in a case like this is, at least, to acknowledge that we're setting out to study a complex, socially embedded, multidimensional phenomena. Maybe another useful step would be to start by limiting oneself to clear cut-cases of art (Renaissance painting, for example) rather than try to embrace "artistic behaviour" in general - whatever that is.

So, before we start sticking people into the scanner to contrast the parts of the brain that light up when they look at a Boticelli vs. a picture of their step mum, we could begin by asking ourselves exactly what we want our science to say about art.

When we do so, we also have to be modest about what we know and what we can hope to bring to the field. Some people have devoted their lives to understanding a particular artist or historical period and here we go barging in when we don't even understand exactly what V1 does or if that fusiform area really is specific to faces.

I'm completely open to changing my mind. If readers could point me to recent examples of neuroaesthetics research that really bring something new to the table, I'd love to be proven wrong.