Another day, another venerable neuroscientist decides to go after neuroaesthetics.
I have a long-standing interest in neuroaethetics. If I remember correctly, my Embarrassing Personal Statement for my grad school applications, written back in 1999, were about my desire to do neuroaesthetics. (I am eternally grateful that that Personal Statement has been lost in the sands of time, since it was certainly ridiculous.) I gave up my dream of pursuing that interest the moment I got to grad school and discovered more serious stuff, but I nonetheless feel kind of attached to the field, and hope to get back into it around the time the softball team gives me the nickname Emeritus.
In my opinion, there are two types of people who are interested in neural aesthetics. Type 1: People who actually want to understand how aesthetics works, neurally. Type 2: People who want to name drop famous painters and composers while they sip red wine and eat cheese. The Type 1 people prefer to spend their time in the lab actually learning how aesthetics works.
I have invented a to distinguish these types. I call it the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star Test.
It goes like this: when the person talks about neuroaesthetics, do they focus on how subjects respond to the music of Bela Bartok, or on how they respond to the Wiggles?
Because if they want to talk about Bartok, or Kandinsky, or whatever, I posit that they are not legitimate neuroaestheticians.
The reason for this is that 20th century modern art is the most fun to talk about at parties, but is the least amenable to scientific scrutiny.
Imagine it’s the late 1960's and you want to invent behavioral genetics. You don’t start with humans, you start with fruit flies. And if you are inventing physics, you start with the two body problem, not with chaotic attractor systems. And if you want to understand why we like certain pieces of art, you try to figure out what 4 year olds are responding to in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
In fact, I wouldn't even start with visual art myself. I would begin with music, since that seems much more powerful, and much less laden with cultural junk that is hard to quantify. The first generation of neuroaestheticians are not going to be doing the most glamorous work. They are going to be doing the simplest work.