‘Neuroarthistory’ to probe the palaeolithic mind & cognitive evolution


John Onians, a professor of art history at the University of East Anglia, has teamed up with Semir Zeki, one of the world’s leading vision researchers, to investigate what happens inside artists’ brains. By doing so, Oninas is founding a new discipline – neuroarthistory.

Professor Onians, whose research interests include perception, cognition and the biological basis of art, will use neuroimaging to try and gain an understanding of what happened in the brains of great artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci. 

For example, research has already revealed a reason for the different styles of Florentine and Venetian painters. Because of exposure to different natural and man-made environments, these schools of artists had different visual preferences;  whereas Florentine artists made more use of lines, the Venetians made more use of colour.  

Prof. Zeki is a pioneer of  neuroaesthetics. He aims to account for the characteristics of works of art in terms of neurobiology, and believes that the origins of art lie in the brain’s capacity for abstraction and concept formation. Art is one manifestation of the knowledge acquired by the brain, and is an expression of the variability in brain function that occurred during human evolution.

Together, Onians and Zeki hope to gain insights into the neurobiological processes underlying the first works of art, such as those adorning the walls of the cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc (above) in southern France. These wall paintings are believed to have  appeared around 32,000 years ago. At least 13 species, most of them predatory, are depicted on the walls of the cave. Some scholars believe that the paintings were part of hunting and fertility rites, while others argue that they are representations of spirits produced during hallucinatory shamanic trances.

“The most interesting aspect of neuroarthistory is the way it enables us to get inside the minds of people who either could not or did not write about their work,” says Onions, how presented some of his findings at the BA Festival of Science yesterday. “We can understand much about the visual and motor preferences of people separated from us by thousands of miles or thousands of years.”

By trying to understand the origins of art, a wider aim of the neuroarthistory project is therefore an investigation of evolution of human cognition and a better understanding of consciousness.

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4 thoughts on “‘Neuroarthistory’ to probe the palaeolithic mind & cognitive evolution

  1. Good lectures. I really enjoyed reading the suggested articles.

    If we didn´t have the ability to represent art and language abstractly, would they exist?

    The neurosciences are fashionable – they will discover a slice of brain for religion, a slice for happiness, a slice for turning left, a slice for turning around. I am astonished with the methods of this new science.

    Until now, it seems they haven’t made any new discoveries. They can go on, of course, some important knowledge is discovered just like that, ocassionally (??!!)

    Perhaps some of this knowledge cannot be considered worthwhile? It is a huge responsibility, and it would need the methods of historians, anthropologists and sociologists.

    What I have been reading on this blog seems really interesting. It is really pleasant to read.

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  3. I have been an artist ever since I was 6 years old and isolated in a hospital room for over a year. I was a very sick child and creating art was a survival tool for me. I have been creating art ever since from the same place within my psyche as I utilized as a child. As an artist I have discovered my creative process has the undying need to communicate with the soul through my art.

    At a time other children my age were learning the fundamentals of culture, including how to create art socially, I was set free from the structures of our teaching institutions. The art I expressed and created was from our natural ancient creative process. To add to your statement: “Some scholars believe that the paintings were part of hunting and fertility rites, while others argue that they are representations of spirits produced during hallucinatory shamanic trances,” I can only add what I have experienced as an artist. Ancient art was created for the purpose of both ritual and shamanistic…for it was the shaman who created our first art. Art was a survival tool used by shaman to open the mind to possibilities. It forces us to act upon our own ability to create just by viewing it.

    Art has been a catalyst for human evolution socially and spiritually since we first picked up a piece of colored rock or burnt wood and pressed it against the wall of a cave. Instinctually, we chose the best way to communicate ideas in a language of survival.

    Did this primitive form of communication early in our evolution work? Were the paintings of spears piercing prey mealy renditions of past dreams or hunts? In caves, anthropologists have uncovered bones of animals dating back to the drawing on the cave walls. Many bones showed signs of spear marks that collate with those in the paintings. Did our ancestors employ or visual perception as a training tool?

    Art has always had the ability to plant seeds in the minds of man…even without him knowing. Who is to say this magic is still affecting us today, that the art we view now is changing how we see our world tomorrow?

  4. I began drawing with crayons at the earliest times I can recall. Now in my 60s, I still draw, paint and carve. I also write poetry. During late adolescence, I became aware that my artistic perceptions were influenced by the appeal of compelling shapes and sounds in the environment, including the appeal of others’ art. Prehistory may give us the clues for understanding the uncontaminated springs of art, but then those springs must remain a matter of conjecture, even though broad cognitive experimentation may offer some backing. Furthermore, even if it can be shown that certain areas of brains (a statistically significant number of brains) show activity during artistic acts, we will still be a long way from being able to make mechanical predictions or analyses of artistic production. I remain more interested in developing my tools for creating than in slicing up the act of creation.

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