Neuro-aesthetics: Is it just Brains, Beauty and Babel?
Biologists regard humans as an exceptional and unusual species: we perform and engage in a range of activities like no other animals. Language, mathematics, making art, recording history are just a few examples. With increased knowledge about the biological roots of the human species, more and more scholars in the arts and humanities have begun to ask what this knowledge means for the traditional view of the human as a person. In this chapter, I follow one thread of this discussion by examining the impact of new research in cognitive neuroscience upon our understanding of visual art. Most particularly, I review the nascent field of neuro- aesthetics and ask whether it is in any way new, whether it is relevant to the activities of art historians and how this field is likely to develop. An important aim of the chapter is to deliver recent research and conceptual developments, which are current within cognitive neuroscience, to the community of art historians and critical theorists, so that they can begin to access the burgeoning cognitive neuroscience literature for themselves. Next, I examine what elements would be required to establish a continuity between our biologically-rooted activities as human animals and our view of ourselves as free agents able to form aesthetic judgments. Questions of natural vision in comparison with the visual content of art and the nature of expert judgment and its relation to connoisseurship are addressed. Finally, it is suggested that the most productive and interesting developments will come out of focussed, multidisciplinary collaborations between groups of experts (both scientists and art historians/critical theorists), who work together on a specific domain of issues for which the outcome is agreed as significant for advancement by each disciplinary community.