Interview: Researchers of Empirical Aesthetics at the Einstein Group

by Alex Masurovsky

Neuroaesthetics has become somewhat of a buzzword that has popped up recently in TED Talks and other popular media. To better understand what it is all about, I made contact with several members of the Einstein Group, a coalition between the Einstein Foundation and the Berlin School of Mind and Brain graduate program at Humboldt-Universität.

Einstein Group post-doctoral researcher Joerg Fingerhut, also the Scientific Director for the Charité’s Association of Neuroaesthetics (AoN) [1], says that neuroaesthetics  “started in the late 1990’s, with some claims regarding artists’ ability to excite the brain in specific ways and the idea that the artistic experiments that artists initiated makes them similar to neuroscientists – both explore the human brain in their own ways.” Corinna Kühnapfel, an AoN intern who frequently works with the Einstein Group and recently completed her Bachelor’s thesis on neuroaesthetics at the University of Osnabrück, explains that neuroaesthetics “aims to describe aesthetic experience … by investigating underlying correlates involved in experiencing art using neuroimaging methods. It is a subfield of empirical aesthetics, the scientific study of aesthetic experience.”

Big Questions

According to Jesse Prinz, a philosopher and Einstein Group Visiting Fellow to the Mind and Brain program, ongoing research with the group includes several different projects. In one study, Master’s student Guilia Cabbia is taking physiological measures from people as they look at artworks. In another project, an eye-tracking study by Prinz and Fingerhut, along with doctoral student Antonia Reindl and Japanese collaborator Hideaki Kawabata, which Prinz describes as “a pioneering figure in neuroaeshetics”, investigates whether empty space in an image is more likely to be ignored by Germans and visually explored by viewers in Japan. Finally, a study by Prinz and collaborator Angelika Seidel, investigating how assessments of the quality of artworks relates to perceptions of their size. As Prinz suggests,  “Works attributed to master [artists] look bigger!”.

“Aesthetic experiences are pervasive in human life.”

Jesse Prinz

Perhaps not surprisingly, the focus of one current Einstein Group collaboration between Prinz, Fingerhut and Aenne Brielmann of NYU is beauty. “Beauty has somewhat received a bad reputation: it does not seem to be important for 21st century art anymore,” says Fingerhut. “We think this is misguided and there is still a lot to learn about the role beauty plays in our experience of art.” Prinz adds that beauty can be part of the equation, “even in work that has been described as anti-aesthetic … we think that neuroscience can play a role in confirming the centrality of beauty to aesthetic experience.”

Cabbia’s physiological study of aesthetic experience “focuses on the role of the body and its relationship with behavioral responses to artworks.” She draws on previous neuroimaging studies that show increased activation in brain regions related to emotion during moments of art appreciation, as well as research that finds people who have difficulty detecting their internal body sensations (interoception) have diminished interest in art [2,3] “The role of interoception in empirical aesthetics hasn’t been investigated yet,” says Cabbia. “By exploring individual differences in how interoceptive accuracy and physiological responses influence aesthetic evaluation, I aim to shed light on highly individualized responses to art.”

Neuroscience, Psychology or Philosophy? Or All of the Above?

Prinz, though a philosopher, considers much of his recent work to be the on psychology of art. “Thus”, he says, “most of my work is behavioral.” He is particularly interested in the importance of wonder: “Wonder has been a neglected emotion, but arises in some of the most distinctively human contexts: art, science and religion. We are showing that wonder has identifiable physiological expressions and working, through this embodied emotion, to understand what makes us human… [and] the profundity of aesthetic experience.”

Why do we value art?

A current collaborative study between Fingerhut and Katrin Heimann of the University of Aarhus shows viewers video clips of various camera approaches to an object and looks at differences in brain activity. Fingerhut believes this type of study is fundamental. “We have to understand the basic building blocks of our interaction with cultural artifacts, such as architecture, images and movies, before we can move on to more complex theories and experimental settings.”

Kühnapfel, in her bachelor’s thesis, focused primarily on the prospects and limitations of the discipline. “I believe that the power of neuroaesthetics itself, as a neuroscientist inquiry, lies more in finding out about the brain using art, the working of the brain during aesthetic experience, rather than understanding art beyond its visual and objective attributes.”

In Art, as in Life, Diversity is Key

“Generally our aim is to engender interdisciplinary research,” says Fingerhut, on the goals of the Einstein Group. “I am a philosopher by training, but we aim to convince philosophers to conduct experiments and collaborate with researchers in other areas. To this end, we invite researchers that are interested in such interdisciplinary work to join us and discuss possible collaborations and paradigms.” Prinz defines himself as a great believer in methodological pluralism: “Brain imaging tells us very little on its own, [but] combined with other approaches, neuroscience can be informative… [and] can help adjudicate on long-standing philosophical debates.”

Our colleagues in the Einstein Group are hard at work on an angle of brain research that they find fundamental to its understanding. “Aesthetic experiences are pervasive in human life –” says Prinz, “they help us decide what to wear in the morning, what to eat, what music to listen to, what television to watch, who to date.” Kühnapfel believes that “neuroaesthetics can use art and aesthetic stimuli to deepen understanding about the human brain and perception in general.” Fingerhut ponders a simple question, with perhaps a not-so-simple answer: “Why do we value art when its value is not immediately obvious value for our lives?”

[1] For more about the AoN, visit: Association ­of ­Neuroesthetics

[2] Cupchik et al., Brain Cogn, 2009

[3] Jacobsen et al., Neuroimage, 2006

Originally published in Charité Neuroscience Newsletter, March 2018, Vol. 11, Issue 1

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