Assorted neuroaesthetics news

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After writing this weekend’s post on music (below) I got thinking that maybe I should consider updating my wildly popular post on bioaesthetics books – i.e. books looking at aesthetic phenomena from the point of view of biology. A couple of new titles have come out since I wrote that post back in 2006 so an update might be in order. While I ponder which books to include here’s a couple of snippets of news from the wacky world of neuroaesthetics.

Fist of all, it should be noted that Semir Zeki, a well-known neurophysiologist, recently was appointed the world’s first ever professor of neuroaesthetics. As far as I know this institutional break-through for neuroaesthetic came as a result of Zeki receiving, together with Ray Dolan, a Wellcome Trust “strategic award” of 1 million £ to search for “the neural and biological basis for creativity, beauty and love”. (See the press release at the Wellcome Trust’s homepage.) The cool one mil also means that Zeki is now hiring a research associate to work on neuroaesthetics. To celebrate his new position (or so I imagine!), in November he will publish his new book, entitled Splendour and Miseries of the Brain.

However, if you can’t wait until November you might want to visit Zeki’s new blog. Here, among other things you can read about recent neuroaesthetics events that Zeki has participated in, including a meeting in Berlin at May 8 inaugurating something called the Association of Neuroaesthetics (AoN). The AoN is the brainchild of Alexander Abbushi, a neurosurgeon at Berlin’s Charité Hospital. According to its mission statement,

It is the aim of the Association of Neuroesthetics, a European initiative originating at the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin to bring together both the knowledge acquired and the methods employed by contemporary artists and neuroscientists in order to work towards a shared language. It is the Association’s hope that new artistic projects and new approaches in research and the arts may emerge that speak this new language.

Two symposia are planned for the years 2009 and 2010. As a new platform they are intended to allow artists, art historians, scholars in cultural studies, curators and neuroscientists to begin a productive dialogue. The following themes have been envisaged: “Color, Form and Light“, “Temporality, Ambiguity and Uncertainty” and “Subjective Mental States.” The results of these endeavours will be artistic projects, research publications and conference proceedings, all accessible to the public.

Apart from these two prospective meetings it is not clear from the homepage what AoN more precisely plans to do, although it seems very promising that they are already advertising for future Ph.D. students. That could indicate that the Charité intends to host more basic neuroaesthetics research. Let’s hope so.

Both Zeki’s professorship (and Wellcome’s funding) and the organizational initiative of AoN are great news. But what the field of neuroaesthetics is perhaps most in need of is a more institutionalized setting for disseminating and debating research. Of course, people working on empirically understanding the neural underpinnings of aesthetic behavior will attempt to publish their work in the most prestigeous neuroscience journals possible. However, it would be greatly beneficial to have a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to reviewing and discussing theories and new results. Also, at the moment many neuroaesthetics conferences put a premium on inviting big names to give the field some needed credibility, even when these researchers have no track history of actually conducting neuroaesthetic research. It would be enourmously helpful to the increasing maturation of neuroaesthetics as a bona fide research field if somebody were to host an annual or bi-annual conference focusing on the presentation of new data – with an open call for papers.

With these words let me as a final news flash be self-centered enough to mention an up-comming book simply entitled Neuroaesthetics, edited by yours truly together with my good friend Oshin Vartanian. Beside contributions by Oshin and myself it includes chapters by Thomas Jacobsen; Steven Brown and Ellen Dissanayake; Tecumseh Fitch, Antje von Graevenitz and Eric Nicolas; Marcos Nadal, Miquel Capó, Enric Munar, Gisèle Marty & Camilo José Cela-Conde; Anjan Chatterjee; Dahlia Zaidel; Nicholas Wade;Mari Tervaniemi; David Miall; Torben Grodal and Troy Chenier and Piotr Winkielman. In editing this book Oshin and I have attempted two things: First of all to present neuroaesthetics as a broad field incorporating all the arts and all questions of possible aesthetical interest. Secondly, we wanted to distinguish the most most pressing porblems facing the field in the hope of promoting new empirical research.

The book is still in production but it is already possible to go to the publisher’s homepage and order it now at a considerable discount. When I know more about the publication date I will get back to you with further details.

-Martin

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