See Inside October/November 2006

The Neurology of Aesthetics

WHAT IS ART? Probably as many definitions exist as do artists and art critics. Art is clearly an expression of our aesthetic response to beauty. But the word has so many connotations that it is best—from a scientific point of view—to confine ourselves to the neurology of aesthetics.

Aesthetic response varies from culture to culture. The sharp bouquet of Marmite is avidly sought after by the English but repulsive to most Americans. The same applies to visual preferences; we have personally found no special appeal in Picasso. Despite this diversity of styles, many have wondered whether there are some universal principles. Do we have an innate “grammar” of aesthetics analogous to the syntactic universals for languages proposed by linguist Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

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