A Dialogue Between Cognitive Neuroscience and the Humanities is Possible: An Experimental Aesthetics Manifesto

Date: March 8, 2016
Time: 1:30pm - 3:30pm
Location: A266 Collision Space, Bay 10, Smith Warehouse

Image: Engraved ochre from Blombos Cave. Photo courtesy of Chris Henshilwood. [Source]

Part of the Neuroarchaeology Series presented by the Humanities Futures Ancient Mind: Mind, Brain & Society Working Group.

This discussion features renowned neuroscientist and philosopher of mind Vittorio Gallese, with responses by Duke faculty and Working Group conveners Maurizio Forte (Classical Studies), Deborah Jenson (Romance Studies and Global Health / Franklin Humanities Institute), and Elizabeth Johnson (Neurobiology / Duke Institute for Brain Sciences).

By exploiting the neurocognitive approach, viewed as a sort of ‘cognitive archeology’, in this discussion Prof. Gallese will empirically investigate the neurophysiological brain mechanisms that make human interactions with the world possible, detect possible functional antecedents of our cognitive skills, and measure the socio-cultural influence exerted by human cultural evolution onto the very same cognitive skills. In so doing we can deconstruct some of the concepts we normally use when referring to intersubjectivity or to aesthetics and art, as well as when referring to the experience we make of them.

Experimental aesthetics will be discussed in relation with current neuroscientific approaches to art and aesthetics. We can now look at the aesthetic-symbolic dimension of human existence not only from a semiotic-hermeneutic perspective, but starting from the dimension of bodily presence. According to Hans Gumbrecht (2004) aesthetic experience involves two components: one deals with meaning, the other one with presence. The notion of presence entails the bodily involvement of image beholders through a synesthetic multimodal relationship with the artistic/cultural artifact.

Cognitive neuroscience can surrender us from the forced choice between the totalizing relativism of social constructivism, which doesn’t leave any room to the constitutive role of the body in cognition, and the deterministic scientism of some quarters of evolutionary psychology, which aims at explaining art exclusively in terms of adaptation and modularity. Prof. Gallese will present empirical research results that the symbolic processes characterizing the human species, in spite of their progressive abstraction and externalization from the body, keep their bodily ties intact. Symbolic expression is tied to the body not only because the body is the symbol-making instrument, but also because it is the main medium allowing symbolic experience.