A&O – NEUROSCIENCE of ART and AESTHETICS, and Artificial Intelligence




One of the principal goals of ART & ORGANISM is to understand the causes and consequences of art, identified as an undertaking of individuals at levels of organization from one’s personal development through the institutionalized and culturally sanctioned displays of paleolithic caves and great museums.  As we look at the biological traditions that can inform our understanding (see DEEP ethology for a quick overview), we become aware of the enabling or constraining contexts in which art develops, emerges, and is expressed. Amongst the least accessible is the physiology of the expressing and perceiving organism.  Important clues about how this works comes from observing changes attributable to normal development, and change due to disease or accident.  The clues are rare and provide limited confidence because all aspects of art involve the convergence of many factors, not least of which is context, and almost all contexts in which observations are made are abnormal.  Ethology has always sought to remedy this.




In 2016, Eric Kandel, the neuroscientist most known for his key work in understanding the physiology of memory (Nobel laureate in 2000), was affected by C.P. Snow’s famous observation of the two cultures of Western intellectual life “that of the sciences, which are concerned with the physical nature of the universe, and that of the humanities—literature and art—which are concerned with the nature of human experience.”  It was Kandel’s intention to help bridge that chasm.  He observed that both modern brain science and in modern art share some central attributes: “Both brain science and abstract art address, in direct and compelling fashion, questions and goals that are central to humanistic thought. In this pursuit they share, to a surprising degree, common methodologies.

While the humanistic concerns of artists are well known, [Kandel seeks to] illustrate that brain science also seeks to answer the deepest problems of human existence, using as an example the study of learning and memory. Memory provides the foundation for our understanding of the world and for our sense of personal identity; we are who we are as individuals in large part because of what we learn and what we remember. Understanding the cellular and molecular basis of memory is a step toward understanding the nature of the self. In addition, studies of learning and memory reveal that our brain has evolved highly specialized mechanisms for learning, for remembering what we have learned, and for drawing on those memories—our experience—as we interact with the world. Those same mechanisms are key to our response to a work of art.” 

From the INTRODUCTION to Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures by Eric Kandel (2016)[i]



“Neuroethological studies measure an animal’s behavior under natural conditions rather than under artificial or limiting conditions that lead to erroneous conclusions about what the nervous system is responding to and how neuronal activity results in action (Ingle and Crews, 1985). Niko Tinbergen raised four questions for explaining behavior (Tinbergen, 1963): (1) Causation. What is the causal basis of the behavior? (2) Ontogeny. How does the behavior develop over the organism’s lifetime? (3) Adaptation. How does an animal adapt to its environment? (4) Phylogeny. How did the behavior evolve over many generations?

By focusing on the rich behavior, neuroethologists observe how this behavior “push[es] the envelope of what brains are capable of doing” (Dickinson and Moss, 2012). Recently, there has been a “call to arms” for a computational neuroethology (Datta et al., 2019).

Neuroscientists now have amazing tools to probe the brain, including sophisticated anatomical tracers to identify pathways, optogenetics to manipulate neural circuits, and recording arrays that can monitor large populations of neurons during awake behavior. New techniques, such as those that automate measuring behavior, and virtual reality, that makes the laboratory setting appear more natural to the animal, allow researchers to examine these naturalistic behaviors while having the control over measurements of brain and behavior.

In addition, the advent of deep neural networks and machine learning allows these large datasets to be analyzed in ways that could never occur before.”

(from the INTRODUCTION to Neurorobots as a Means Toward Neuroethology and Explainable AI by Chen et al. 2020)



[i] ERIC R. KANDEL (2016) Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures  Columbia University Press 240 pp.  DOI: 10.7312/kand17962  ISBN-13: 978-0231179621  INTRODUCTION   (pp. 3-8)