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The same thing is possible in visual art. For example, the multiple arms on the Chola bronze of the dancing Shiva or
Nataraja (Figure 4) are not meant to be taken literally, as they
were by the Victorian art critic Sir George Birdwood, who
called it a multi-armed monstrosity. (Funnily enough, he didn’t
think that angels sprouting wings were monstrosities—although I can tell you as a medical man that to possess multiple
arms is anatomically possible, but wings on scapulae are not!)
The multiple arms are meant to symbolize multiple divine
attributes of God, and the ring of fire that Nataraja dances
in—indeed his dance itself—is a metaphor of the dance of the
cosmos and of the cyclical nature of creation and destruction,
an idea championed by the late Fred Hoyle. Most great works
of art—be they Western or Indian—are pregnant with metaphor and have many layers of meaning.9
Everyone knows that metaphors are important, yet we have
no idea why. Why not just say “Juliet is radiant and warm” instead of saying “Juliet is the sun”? What is the neural basis for
metaphor? We don’t know.
Many social scientists feel rather deflated when informed
that beauty, charity, piety, and love are the result of the activity
186 the artful brain Figure 4. Nataraja, or dancing Shiva.
Chola dynasty, copper alloy, thirteenth century. of neurons in the brain, but their disappointment is based on
the false assumption that to explain a complex phenomenon in
terms of its component parts (“reductionism”) is to explain it
away. To understand why this is a fallacy, imagine it’s the
twenty-second century and I am a neuroscientist watching you
and your partner (Esmeralda) making love. I scan Esmeralda’s
brain and tell you everything that’s going on in it when she is
in love with you and making love to you. I tell you about activity in her septum, in her hypothalamic nuclei, and how certain
peptides are released along with the affiliation hormone prolactin, etc. You might then turn to her and say, “You mean
that’s all there is to it? Your love isn’t real? It’s all just chemicals?” To which Esmeralda should respond, “On the contrary,
all this brain activity provides hard evidence that I do love you,
that I’m not just faking it. It should increase your confidence
in the reality of my love.” And the same argument holds for art
or piety or wit.
187 the internet and the university Do these laws of neuro-aesthetics encompass everything
there is to know about art? Of course not; I have barely
scratched the surface. But I hope that these laws have provided some hints about the general form of a future theory of
art and about how a neuroscientist might try to approach the
The solution to the problem of aesthetics, I believe, lies in a
more thorough understanding of the connections between the
30 visual centers in the brain and the emotional limbic structures (and of the internal logic and evolutionary rationale that
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This document was uploaded on 09/24/2013.
- Summer '09