Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
Twenty percent of art can now be explained by neuroscience. That, at least, is what V.S. Ramachandran thinks. Ramachandran is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Distinguished Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is, in short, one of the top neuroscientists around at the moment. He is also a clear and engaging writer. His 1999 book, Phantoms in the Brain, brought him much popular attention and his most recent book, The Tell-Tale Brain, is doing more of the same.
Much like Oliver Sacks, his friend and admirer, Ramachandran comes to many of his insights about the human brain by observing its dysfunction. Problems in the brain can tell us meaningful things about what is going on in a normal brain. Take, for example, people who claim that one of their arms belongs to someone else due to damage to their brain; they become lessons in how complex and multi-layered are the functions of consciousness. We seem to ourselves, when everything is going well, to be fully unified “selves.” In fact, when we look at various disorders of the mind, we see how tenuous is the ground upon which that feeling rests. In looking at the disordered mind, Ramachandran gets the impression that he is looking “at human nature through a magnifying glass.”
That is also why Ramachandran devotes two whole chapters of his book to the subject of art and aesthetics. Making art and appreciating art seems to be universal in the human species. From prehistoric cave paintings to modern conceptualism, where you find human beings you also find art. At the same time, no one has ever been able to give a very good definition of art, to explain in any rigorous and satisfying way what it is that human beings are up to when they make art and when they like art. It is a subject that touches on the strangeness of consciousness, the felt sense of being human that all of us experience every day but that is so resistant to explanation or analysis. Art is thus a kind of Holy Grail to those who seek to explain the murkiest aspects of human consciousness. But it is this very fact — the experiential and intangible nature of art — that would seem to preclude the possibility that science can intrude into the domain of art. As Ramachandran himself admits, “One is a quest for general principles and tidy explanations while the other is a celebration of the individual imagination and spirit, so that the very notion of a science of art seems like an oxymoron.”