Neuroaesthetics and Great Resources at Penn

Sometimes I simply love being a graduate student at a private American university—resources at schools I used to attend in Germany (even though “Elite”) were not in the least comparable to what’s going on here with regard to talks, workshops, interdepartmental conferences and classes, methods courses, (mental) health resources, funding opportunities, … Take today: I am just returning from a talk on “neuroaesthetics” organized by Penn’s Center for Neuroscience and Society (CNS) in the Law School’s beautiful Silverman Hall with a nice reception afterwards. More on the talk after a short advertisement of the CNS:

Apart from this public talk series, CNS has incredible resources for students and non-academic people interested in the neurosciences: E.g., there is the so-called Neuroscience Boot Camp, a nine-day summer program meant to provide journalists, lawyers, and other non-neuroscientists who engage with the neurosciences on a regular professional basis with insight in contemporary brain research. Applications were due 01/30—so sorry I am posting this only now! But join the CNS mailing list and apply next year.

Another possibility for gaining more insight in the neurosciences is the so-called SCAN (Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience) program that was introduced in March 2013 and is currently teaching its first cohort of 13 students with diverse disciplinary backgrounds. Over a period of one or two years, Penn grad students take classes in the neurosciences for credit and work towards a certificate asserting that they have acquired “a strong grasp of neuroscience for nonscientists, emphasizing those aspects of neuroscience that are most relevant to understanding human behavior.” No extra costs, and credits count as electives within my program. Isn’t it amazing?!

Back to the talk, which brought together Anjan Chatterjee, Professor of Neurology at CNS, and newspaper art critic Blake Gopnik.1 Chatterjee introduced his recently published book The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art, and Gopnik reacted with a quite surprising critique. Instead of tearing apart Chatterjee’s attempt to approach aesthetics scientifically, Gopnik demanded a more “aggressive kind of neuroaesthetics,” i.e., “interventional neuroaesthetics” which are able to “wake up” society, ask questions about art which have never been asked before, and direct attention to entirely new ways of connecting things in the world.

To be honest, this was kind of a disappointment to me. As usual, there was only very little time for questions left, and I couldn’t satisfy my thirst for a more rigorous approach to “neuroaesthetics.” For example, neither Chatterjee nor Gopnik distinguished between production and consumption of art: What is neuroaesthetic research directed at? At our perception of an artist’s self-expression or at what’s going on in the artist’s head while creating the product?

Luckily, Russell Epstein was in the audience, too—I introduced his 2004 article “Consciousness, Art, and the Brain” in a recent post. The conclusion of his paper on Marcel Proust’s lessons for neuroscientists is “that a scientific theory of art is possible, and will be found as an inevitable corollary of a scientific theory of consciousness.” I find this assertion highly controversial, but also very fruitful in the connection of today’s talk: Is neuroaesthetics directed towards (however aggressive and interventional) knowledge of art and aesthetics or is it rather one in many attempts to gain a better understanding of perception and consciousness, i.e. a self-serving neuroscientific endeavor? It would have been really interesting to find out whether Gopnik and Chatterjee agreed on this issue or not. I should have stayed longer after the talk, and asked them while eating cookies—but I had to run back and write this blog post for you.

1 Get this: Gopnik was born in 1963 and has a son who is “a private investigator in Toronto.” My father is six years older than Gopnik. Assume that he and Gopnik were the same age when they had their first son and note that my older brother was born 15 months before me. A little calculation reveals that I had a seven-years’ headstart on Gopnik’s son—and look where we are now! He is a private investigator and I am still going to school! However, in rethinking the whole thing, I might not be less than at least an investigator myself. And when I’m not blogging, I’m pretty private, too.

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