‘Brain String Theory’, 2012. Jeremy Strain

InNeuroaesthetics is killing your soul(MUSE, March 2013), science writer Philip Ball argues that our artistic experience and understanding cannot ever be understood in terms of neurophysiological structure and function (i.e., mechanism). Ball claims that neuroscientific research on aesthetics (‘neuroaesthetics’) is wasteful, uninformative, and impossible.

Ball’s article on neuroaesthetics received two thoughtful and critical comments from Brad Foley and Dhalia Zaidel, with whom I entirely agree. In this post, I consider the thoughts that Ball expresses in this passage of the article:

“And what will a neuroaesthetic ‘explanation’ consist of anyway? Indications so far are that it may be along these lines: “Listening to music activates reward and pleasure circuits in brain regions such as the nucleus accumbens, ventral tegmental area and amygdala”. Thanks, but no, thanks. Although it is worth knowing that musical ‘chills’ are neurologically akin to the responses invoked by sex or drugs, an approach that cannot distinguish Bach from barbiturates is surely limited.

There are certain to be generalities in art and our response to it, and they can inform our artistic understanding and experience. But they will never wholly define or explain it”.

In the first paragraph of this passage, Ball objects to the alleged utility of neuroaesthetic explanations of artistic experience. By ‘utility’, I assume Ball means ‘being informative’. The sample neuroaesthetic explanation he gives is: “Listening to music activates reward and pleasure circuits in brain regions such as the nucleus accumbens, ventral tegmental area and amygdala”. Ball denies the utility of this type of explanation because it fails to inform of the actual difference, at the level of the brain, between equally pleasurable experiences as listening to Bach, taking barbiturates or having sex.

I want to make clear here two observations that are (implicitly, I think) backgrounded in Ball’s article. First, it is conceivable that stimulus-driven (external or internal) sensory experience may be subserved by an unconscious physical base with a specific neurophysiological signature. Explaining sensory experience in this direct way aims first to describe the base as a correlate of sensory experience, then ultimately to achieve a reductive neurophysiological explanation of sensory experience (Churchland, 2007; Churchland, 1989, 2002, 2011). Second, brain mechanism responses to stimuli can be correlated for a variety of reasons: (1) the mechanism is part of the cause of the stimulus-induced experience; (2) the mechanism is part of the effect of the experience; (3) the mechanism indirectly parallels the experience; (4) the mechanism is what the experience can be identified with (i.e., x = y) (Churchland, 2007; Churchland, 1989, 2002, 2011). Discovering the neurophysiological signature of aesthetic experience as a type of experience requires the identification of some neurophysiological mechanism with aesthetic experience.

Now, Ball’s sample neuroaesthetic explanation describes a correlation between listening to music and brain response, such as we typically find reported in neuroimaging studies in neuroscience using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). But, it is not clear which one of the four neuroscientific correlation types he designates in his sample. It would be ironic if the physical signature of aesthetic experience proves to be the very one Ball now denies as even being sufficiently informative. This is possible, but highly unlikely, since the signature will probably reveal a highly complex and interdependent nervous-endocrine-immune ensemble (compare Chapman et al. 2008). In any event, and to challenge Ball’s assertion to the contrary, the correlation of brain response x (e.g., concurrent activation in nucleus accumbens, ventral tegmental area, amygdala) with pleasure in music-listening is informative because x may be the one for identifying musical pleasure. Correspondingly, a brain response y hypothesized by neuroscientists that does not correlate with musical pleasure indicates that y may not be the one. It may turn out that listening to Bach and receiving fellatio do not share the same neural signature. At the end of the day, the implicit target in Ball’s article, and the hidden target of all those people who think as he, is the theoretical identification of aesthetic experience with mechanism (i.e., mind-brain identity theory). Mind-brain identity theory is a philosophy of mind. The identity theory of mind claims that states and processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of the brain (Place, 1956; Polger, 2004; Smart, 1959; van Rysewyk, 2013). If Ball and others surely wish to engage with neuroaesthetics at the intended level, they should acquire some expertise in philosophy of mind and philosophy of art.

In the second paragraph, Ball objects to the very possibility of a neuroaesthetic definition or explanation of artistic experience (“But they will never wholly define or explain it”). This is much stronger than the claim that neuroaesthetics is uninformative. According to Ball, a complete neuroaesethetics of artistic experience is impossible. My interpretation of Ball is speculative, since the reasons for his radical conclusion are not given in the article. And it is unclear exactly what he means by ‘wholly’. Presumably, by ‘wholly’, he means a complete and final neuroaesthetics of all aesthetic experience, irrespective of whether neuroaesthetists can formulate it. A significant casualty of Ball’s view is objective scientific explanation. Since Ball thinks a final scientific explanation of aesthetics is impossible, he is thereby commited to the view that there can be no final explanation of aesthetics which does not involve essential reference to personal opinions, experiences or points of view (i.e., a subjective explanation).

Ball does not explain why he thinks neuroaesthetics cannot ever explain or define aesthetics. I invite him to explain why. Otherwise, his article will come across as little more than a negative argument to the effect that the neuroaesthetic project will not succeed. In the meantime, I hope the following is helpful. As Churchland (1989, 2002, 2011) makes clear, explicit definitions and explanations of things tend to co-evolve in science, and emerge only quite late in the course of protracted scientific and philosophical investigations. Because neuroaesthetics is an extremely young subdiscipline of neuroscience (itself barely 60 years old), I think the prudent hope is for correlations of types (1), (2), (3), described above, to lead to novel hypothetical identities and more advanced experimental and philosophical investigation. Already, we know much more about aesthetic experience than even 5 years ago (Conway & Rehding, 2013). Ultimately, neuroaesthetics wants to produce fundamental scientific aesthetic identities; that is, robust correlations of type (4). Proximately, it is reasonable to set achievable aims. Still, the reality of the brain and body may yet thwart our best investigative attempts to identify artistic experience with neurophysiology.


Chapman, C. R., Tuckett, R. P., & Song, C. W. (2008). Pain and stress in a systems perspective: reciprocal neural, endocrine, and immune interactions. Journal of Pain 9: 122-145.

Churchland, P. M. (2007). Neurophilosophy at work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Churchland, P. S. (1989). Neurophilosophy: Toward a unified science of the mind-brain. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Churchland, P. S. (2002). Brain-wise: Studies in neurophilosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Churchland, P. S. (2011). Braintrust: What neuroscience tells us about morality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Conway, B. R., & Rehding, A. (2013). Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty. PLoS Biol 11(3): e1001504. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001504.

Place, U. T. (1956). Is Consciousness a Brain Process? British Journal of Psychology, 47: 44-50.

Polger, T. W. (2004). Natural minds. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Smart, J. J. C. (1959).  Sensations and Brain Processes. Philosophical Review, 68: 141-156.

van Rysewyk, S. (2013). Pain is Mechanism. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Tasmania.