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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