More neuroscientific insight into mentality?

We recently had some discussion about whether we can learn much about mentality from neuroscience. Well: how about the essence of art? Here’s an excerpt from a blog review of V. S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human:

Ramachandran identifies what he calls nine laws of aesthetics. Let’s look at one of them — law number two, which he calls Peak Shift — to get a sense of what neuroscience brings to aesthetics. Peak Shift refers to a generally elevated response to exaggerated stimuli among many animals. Ramachandran refers to a study in which seagull chicks were made to beg for food (just as they do from their mothers) simply by waving a beak-like stick in front of their nests. Later, the researchers pared down even further, simply waving a yellow strip of cardboard with a red dot on the end (adult gulls have a red dot at the end of their beaks). They got the same response. More interesting, and crucially for Ramachandran’s law of Peak Shift, is that the gull chicks become super excited if you put three red dots on the cardboard strip. Something in the mental hardwiring of the chicks says, “red outline on lighter background means food.” The wiring does not normally need to be more specific than that. It is enough for survival. So, the chick brains make the leap to interpreting the advent of several red outlines as being several times better. They go nuts.

This fact, Ramachandran thinks, can give us some real, neurologically based insights into the appeal for abstract art. Ramachandran supposes that with abstract art, human beings have learned to tap into their own gull chick response mechanisms. Abstract artists are thus “tapping into the figural primitives of our perceptual grammar and creating ultranormal stimuli that more powerfully excite certain visual neurons in our brains as opposed to realistic-looking images.”

This makes me giggle. Yes, that’s exactly the appeal of Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee: when I see their works, I feel like I’m seeing my mother’s beak. I would like to see a latter-day Nietzschean take apart this book in the same way Nietzsche took apart David Strauss.

But the review goes on to explain that Ramachandran softens these insights with multiple disclaimers about not being reductionistic, and claims that he is only contributing a little something to our understanding, not supplying the whole dish. The reviewer himself suspects “there is a genuine insight here, mixed with a battery of oversimplifications that could be picked apart by any art historian.” I doubt much “picking apart” would be required; guffawing broadsides would seem to be more in order. But what do I know? I haven’t read the book, and maybe there’s more to it than this review makes evident. I’ll leave it at that.

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