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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Reply to John Hyman


Is this neck a "super-stimulus"?

This message has ben posted in the discussion around John Hyman paper: Art and Neuroscience in the virtual workshop on Art and cognition: Pictures in Science and Cognition


John Hyman puts too much emphasis on “bold claims” that are so common these days in the so-called “scientific best-seller” literature, like: “Great art is ambiguity” or “All art is caricature”- and which are often part of the editing strategies to make a scholarly book appealing for a larger audience - instead of addressing some more substantial claims. Nobody wants to find the definitive neural correlate of art, the “art neuron”. Yet, we are not entirely satisfied by socio-historical explanations that explain a form of artistic expression in terms of a vector of social, cultural and historical forces of power and domination, and that seem to be much more mainstream today in art studies than neuro-aesthetics. It seems to me a reasonable project to take into account some cognitive constraints in the stabilization of a cultural form of expression, as art is. Zeki and Ramachandran’s attempts are efforts in this direction, that is, trying to isolate some perceptual/cognitive constraint at play in the stabilization of an art form.
But let’s go through some of the details of Hyman’s objections:
In his discussion on the inappropriateness of the Peak Shift effect in order to explain our art preferences, Hyman “knock-down” argument against Ramachandran boils down to the idea that the female figures in Indian art are a too far departure from reality to be a super-stimulus: The distance between the stimulus we are predisposed (by training or by evolution) to respond positively and the super-stimulus cannot be too large for the Peak-Shift to take place: “Ramachandran’s explanation of the beauty of the Indian sculpture does not work. In the first place, there is no evidence that the spectators who find it beautiful have been trained in this way. And second, the body shape of the goddess deviates much too far from the norm”. I don’t see how this could be such a devastating objection: One can reply that the spectator doesn’t need to be trained, but he may have been predisposed by evolution to respond positively to a class of stimuli. And what counts as an appropriate “distance” from two stimuli? A rat that has been trained to positively react to a square (S+) instead of a circle (S-), will react to a bigger square even it is not clear in which sense the bigger square is more distant from the circle than the original square. A better line of objection would be to argue that, at least in the case of female goddesses, Ramachandran’s theory seems to presuppose a male audience as target of these works, and I wouldn’t bet on this hypothesis. I will return on the objections to Zeki in another message. Just would like to mention in conclusion that a lively discussion around Ramachandran’s work has already took place on our website at: Art and Cognition The original paper by Ramachandran and the archives of the discussion are online and available to you all.