Week 2 Response: The Brain’s Role in a Work of Art

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Leonardo Da Vinci’s Study of the Human Brain

Very often, the world of science and the world of art are perceived as two non-intersecting fields of study. Stereotypically, science is strictly based in logic and reason, and art relies on the limitless possibilities of creativity and imagination, right?

In lecture, Professor Cartwright introduced John Onians, who studied neuroarthistory and questioned the effect of neurobiological processes on works of art. He hypothesized that repeated exposure to various environments created avenues of plasticity in the brain, ultimately shaping an artist’s patterns of preference and marking. I think Onian’s hypothesis and his work in general serves as a great example of one of the many intersections of science and art. Our brain and its associative nature controls a vast amount of our daily lives, from how we perceive and react to the world to the subtle distinctions in each individual’s personality. It even influences how we perceive and create artwork. The study of the brain’s processes in the creation of artworks can broaden our perspective of art: it can add another dimension of analysis in which we cognitively evaluate the influence of the artist’s neural associations on his or her work of art.

Onians’s hypothesis reminded me of a book that I read several years back, called Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape our Lives. In the book, author Dean Buonamano writes

“Like a parent that carefully filters the information her child is exposed to, the brain edits and censor much of the the information it feeds to the conscious mind. In the same fashion that your brain likely edited out the extra “the” from the previous sentence, we are generally blissfully unaware of the arbitrary and irrational factors that govern our decisions and behaviours…It is difficult to overstate how many of our mental faculties rely on our neurons to share information with partners near and far, and create links between the sounds, sights, concepts, and feelings we experience…The ability to learn the strokes that make a letter, the letters that make a word, and the object that a word represents, all derive from the ability of neurons and synapses to capture and create associations.”

The core of Onian’s hypothesis rests on an idea that Buonomano also emphasizes: the subtle processes going on in our brains that allow us to filter sensory input to ultimately shape our experience of the world. Science and art are very much intertwined, but often in subtle ways that we aren’t always conscious of. Our brain and its associative design contribute tremendously to our reactions, emotions, and decisions, but we are often unaware of the processes going on inside of our brain that contribute to our perceptions of this world.

Cognitively thinking about the brain’s processes in relation to artworks can give the audience another tool for perceiving and appreciating that artwork by allowing them to understand the artist’s neural perceptions of the world.

-Connie Paik

(I will present on Week 4 material during Week 5).

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