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Aesthetics and Neuroscience
March 29, 2013 6:47 PM   Subscribe

Rational reductionist approaches to the neural basis for beauty run a similar risk of pushing the round block of beauty into the square hole of science and may well distill out the very thing one wants to understand.
An essay by Bevil Conway and Alexander Rehding in PLoS Biology. (via)
posted by nangar (18 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm halfway through the article and am struck by how well this article points out, though it is not its central focus, the absurdity of trying to find the singular biological root or "truth" of something ( a piece of language denoting a certain concept, in this case "beauty") that is socially formed and is thus, almost by definition, rooted in a number of biological entities.

AKA

I find it strange how focused neuroscience sometimes is on the social brain when we haven't figured out entirely how ONE of the damn things work yet.
posted by sendai sleep master at 7:01 PM on March 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is what happens when your undergraduate science program comes insufficiently leavened with humanities.
posted by phrontist at 7:11 PM on March 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Actual neuroscience (NB: not to be confused with psychology, psychiatry, neuropharmacology, sociology, anthropology...etc) performed by real scientists has nothing at all to do with "the brain." It's all mathematical formulas, circuits, electrolyte balances, calcium ligands and electricity charts, and molecules and molecules and molecules. Maybe if we're feeling frisky we might make some slides out of tissue and see what connects to what.

No legitimate neuroscientist is looking at PET scans and saying "Clearly, what we have here is an excitatory dopamine reaction to reading Cosmo. The patient is addicted to tabloid sensationalism."

Or whatever.

Thankfully, we have the media to navel gaze and philosophize on our findings! Otherwise nobody would bother reading about neuroscience.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 7:13 PM on March 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


pushing the round block of beauty into the square hole of science

I'm pretty sure I saw a video about this at one of the brain porn sites.

No, seriously. I wish there were brain porn sites.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:21 PM on March 29, 2013


Brain porn: One watches two scans of the brains of two people having sex and one has to use that less than specific source of information to IMAGINE the positions that they might be in.
posted by sendai sleep master at 7:39 PM on March 29, 2013


No legitimate neuroscientist is looking at PET scans and saying "Clearly, what we have here is an excitatory dopamine reaction to reading Cosmo. The patient is addicted to tabloid sensationalism."

Nor does any true Scotsman do that. However, there are plenty of illegitimate neuroscientists in universities and fake Scotsmen in Scotland.
posted by kenko at 8:35 PM on March 29, 2013


Actual neuroscience (NB: not to be confused with psychology, psychiatry, neuropharmacology, sociology, anthropology...etc) performed by real scientists has nothing at all to do with "the brain."

That's a pretty narrow definition of "neuroscience", and I know quite a few systems neuroscientists, computational neuroscientists, and cognitive neuroscientists who would beg to differ. I'm not sure what that has to do with your second point, but it's wrong, and dismissive to half the field to an almost offensive degree. Have you ever seen a copy of Nat Neuro, J Neuro, or Neuron? Or wandered away from the in-vitro enclave at SfN?

Just because something is directly applicable to humans -- or even (gasp!) studied in humans -- doesn't make it any less part of the neuroscientific community. Makes me wonder what motivates people to say it does.
posted by supercres at 9:26 PM on March 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Or, put differently, the last half-dozen people to come out of my PI's lab with neuroscience PhDs without touching a cell culture or slice will be devastated to learn that they're not really studying neuroscience. They might as well be (shudder)... psychologists.
posted by supercres at 9:33 PM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Actual neuroscience (NB: not to be confused with psychology, psychiatry, neuropharmacology, sociology, anthropology...etc) performed by real scientists has nothing at all to do with "the brain." It's all mathematical formulas, circuits, electrolyte balances, calcium ligands and electricity charts, and molecules and molecules and molecules. Maybe if we're feeling frisky we might make some slides out of tissue and see what connects to what.

*waves* Hi! You know that mathematical psychologists exist, right? Some of whom develop mathematical models of "what connects to what"? Your easy division between "actual neuroscience" and "psychology", which can't be separated in practice, reveals a certain ignorance of the topic. Also: no true Scotsman, as kenko pointed out. This is not to say that there's not a lot of bad research out there - I routinely facepalm when reading the work of "real" neuroscientists and "psychologists" alike.

The main problem, which the authors allude to but don't pin down, is that any explanation of beauty (or a related problem, consciousness) will not *feel* to us like an explanation. It may be explained, but it will never be "explained". Because the experience itself is different from the neural substrate, we could know everything there is to know about the workings of the brain and still feel unsatisfied. We humans have the amazing ability to ask questions like "yes, but what is beauty *really*?" that don't necessarily have answers.

There is nothing that promises that even we understand something, we will feel like we understand it. We have to recognize something as an explanation before we accept it, and I don't think we'll ever be ready to do that. We'll always think there's something more even if there's not.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 4:31 AM on March 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yes, but what is an explanation, *really*?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:53 AM on March 30, 2013


Yes, but what is an explanation, *really*

Exactly :) That's why I'm not a scientific realist.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:01 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actual neuroscience (NB: not to be confused with psychology, psychiatry, neuropharmacology, sociology, anthropology...etc) performed by real scientists has nothing at all to do with "the brain." It's all mathematical formulas, circuits, electrolyte balances, calcium ligands and electricity charts, and molecules and molecules and molecules. Maybe if we're feeling frisky we might make some slides out of tissue and see what connects to what.

I used to have similar attitudes but within psychology. I was all cognition while denigrating other areas. After a while I came to realize that my particular area, word nerdery, was primarily focused on asking just the most easily of answered questions and patting ourselves on the back for our rigour. Other people were asking difficult and meaningful questions and struggling with methodology.

Curiously, nothing that has come out of the rigorous real science priming studies like I used to do has ever affected my life. Stuff that came out of messy and squishy areas like social psychology has in pretty major ways.
posted by srboisvert at 7:13 AM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Everytime a see this kind of thing, I remember the words of the great Richard Feynman.
posted by huguini at 8:11 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sweet. I was totally hoping some Actual Neurologists would weigh in over here. I've been wanting to talk to some lately, and specifically to learn things like "are there people within neurology (also genetics) who actually believe they can predict human behavior based on what their field tells them? Are there then others in the field who disagree?" So I'm glad to hear from hobo gitano, supercres, and Philosopher Dirtbike.

My primary methods have been anthropological and sociolinguistic (though my training is so interdisciplinary I can't really to call myself an anthropologist or sociolinguist, though both figured in my doctoral work). A colleague and I recently played a heated game of Someone Is Wrong On The Internet with a geneticist from Davis (blogging for Discovery) who seems to be convinced he can predict behavior from genes, and has at one point claimed he can prove racial inferiority that way. Clearly he's an asshat, but it reminds our insular group of scholars we may need to continue to make a case for the utility of our fields, and particularly point out the flaws in molecular, genetic, or tissue-level explanations of behavior.

The thing I keep coming back to is that any direct-causal genetic or neurological explanation of behavior seems to me insufficiently respectful of complex systems (like brains, biochemistry, physiology, ecology, and then further out, social institutions). I am starting to wonder more about research in neurology and genetics that IS respectful of such complexity, and how folks in such fields might be using models of complex systems to understand behavior. I'm going back and reading up on chaos theory in hopes that'll help me.

The thing that troubles me with the article here is that beauty is subjective. I say that not just from a humanities definition, but also from my passing knowledge of cognition: my understanding is that we all have different semantic "trees" in our heads, and it seems quite likely that comparing any two brains will be comparing very different structures. Compare a lot of brains, and I'm guessing you then have to explain away a lot of those differences (which may be very important to individuals, or even minority groups of individuals) as "noise," missing the meaning in that data.

So I'm wondering, neurologists: When neurologists say "beauty," what have they operationalized, and how, to make that definition? Which groups of neurologists outright stay away from operationalizations like that, and what is their reasoning? And what kind of complex systems get modeled, and how? Just some friendly curiosity from the anthropological side of the fence, and yeah I know I may just have asked you to teach me through a degree in the field :)
posted by gusandrews at 11:19 AM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Neuroaesthetics is killing your soul. Can brain scans ever tell us why we like art?
posted by homunculus at 3:02 PM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


gusandrews, you might look some of the stuff here.
posted by nangar at 4:45 PM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Inspired by the power of polling, in 1994 a pair of artists, Komar and Melamid, set out to determine “USA's most wanted painting.” The painting was formulated on the basis of a thousand people's responses to questions of their favorite color, favorite setting, and favorite subjects. The resulting painting is absurd, showing that a composition with everything that people find beautiful does not make a beautiful painting.

Dennis Dutton cited this piece in 'The Art Instinct', which reminded me of the quip: "It takes three to tell a joke; one to say it, one to laugh, and one to not get it." But I'd rather not go on, because I don't get it myself sometimes, and sometimes I don't know if I really got it or not?
posted by ovvl at 5:29 PM on March 31, 2013


Brain's music pleasure zone identified: The most popular songs elicit the strongest response in the nucleus accumbens – the brain's reward centre – say scientists
posted by homunculus at 9:50 PM on April 11, 2013


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