Saturday, November 30, 2013

Neuroaesthetics: Brain Imaging for Authors and Their Readers

Neuroaesthetics is an application of brain imaging methods to the experience of works of art.  Lately this endeavor has focused on the expression and appreciation of visual and musical creations.  The field has grown over the past decade in tandem with advances in MRI, PET, CT scans and similar technology. Semir Zeki, one of the field’s proponents, likens artists of all kinds to neuroscientists, insofar as they also explore the capacity and potential of the human mind—whose ultimate basis is the sum of countless neural and neurochemical  processes occurring in brain tissue. 

Dr. Zeki states in the conclusion of his Statement on Neuroaesthetics:  “It is only by understanding the neural laws that dictate human activity in all spheres—in law, morality, religion and even economics and politics, no less than in art—that we can ever hope to achieve a more proper understanding of the nature of man.” (

The Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology at University College London an institute devoted to research in this area.  Its goals include investigating the connection between creative processes and brain functioning, encouraging neurobiologists to include art and creativity as part of research leading to greater understanding of the brain, and exploring the biological basis of aesthetic experiences. 

Underlying this work are the assumptions that “visual art must obey the laws of the visual brain”, that the purpose of visual art is the same as that of the visual brain—to acquire knowledge—and that visual artists are essentially doing the same thing that neuroscientists do, just with different tools and methods.  (

Presumably, these assumptions will apply to other areas of the brain dedicated to different forms of creative expression, for example writing and its complementary process, reading.

As an aside, your humble blogger is by training a speech-language pathologist.   At a professional conference earlier this month in Chicago, I attended a presentation entitled “The Believing Brain: Prefrontal Cortex and Brain Injury Recovery” authored by Jordan Grafman of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.  New brain imaging techniques have also been applied in the investigation of parts of the brain involved in ‘human social beliefs’—specifically, attitudes about religion, morals, and the law. 

To date, no single location or circuit in the brain that appears to be dedicated to these higher level functions—there is no ‘God spot’.  However, in one study, fMRI scans showed increased activity in the pre-frontal cortex on both sides of the brain, in the associative areas of the temporal lobes, and in portions of the occipital and parietal regions during religious thinking tasks.  Interestingly, some research suggests that damage to areas of the pre-frontal cortex and deeper limbic system tissue may alter political beliefs and judgments about morality and the legal consequences of behavior.

In today’s New York Times is a fascinating article about a neuroaesthetic experiment involving a Dutch author and journalist named Arnon Grunberg, (“Wired: Putting a Writer and Readers to a Test”, NYT, 11/30/13).  The author’s brain is being scanned as he writes his next novella.  Brain activity readings are coordinated with the location of Mr. Grunberg’s cursor as he writes sections that have various dominant emotional tones.  Eventually, 50 subjects will be asked to read Grunberg’s novel as their brains are scanned—the data will then be analyzed with respect to patterns that might show a connection between the author’s creative process and its perception and appreciation in the brains of his readers.

An obvious practical application:  imagine if publishers could hook up a focus group of readers to brain imaging devices and evaluate in advance whether a book could become a bestseller.  In the case of horror fiction, would a given manuscript excite the areas of the brain responsible for sensations of fear, horror or passion?  Or would it merely stimulate the centers responsible for sleep?   

Marketing the book, even creating the book, could be tailored to the neurobiological responses of a reader test group.  Maybe even literary criticism itself can be found to have a predictable, quantifiable neurological basis.

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