Neuroscience Gets in the Way of Appreciating Art

Read in your language:

Illustration by Irshad Salim, circa 2008

Describing ourselves in the language of neurobiology has got to be one of the stranger trends in our medical age. I’m depressed because my serotonin levels are low. I cried in the movie because the grieving mother activated my mirror neurons. The dopamine boost from the pinot noir planted me in a garden of bliss. For one thing, simplistic explanations for multivalent situations are a license to charlatans to ring up their cash registers with nostrums for happiness and longevity. More consequently, defining our behaviors in the confines of the brain is a pinched portrait of the ways the world draws out our potential like a conductor draws music from notes on a page. Get with it, people, you are more than your neurons.

This is the passionate point of view of Alva Noë, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of lively books that counter the notion popular among the chattering classes that you are your brain. Noë’s books include Out of Our Heads, Strange Tools, and most recently, Learning to Look, a collection of short essays in which Noë upends theories, mostly hatched in neuroscience, that shortchange the richness of experience, especially the experience of art. More here.

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