Cognitive Neuroscience of Aesthetics
Marcos Nadal, PhD., Department of Basic Psychological Research and Research Methods, University of Vienna
The hallmarks of true art—few today would deny this—are evident in the European Upper Paleolithic parietal paintings, such as those at Chauvet (dated to around 30.000 years before present), Lascaux (around 17.000) or Altamira (close to 15.000). However, as archaeological excavations have progressed outside the European continent researchers have begun questioning the notion that art, symbolic thought, and behavioral modernity appeared in Europe at such a late time. For instance, we now know that ochre had been used for coloring in general, and body painting in particular, tens of thousands of years earlier in several locations across Africa and the Near East. Evidence is accumulating also for an early development of engraving, beadwork, and music. In fact, there is growing evidence that our species expressed itself through color, ornaments and other symbolic means, wherever it settled in the world. With the probable exception of Neandertals, there is little evidence of such an intense and consistent interest in color and ornamentation in earlier or contemporary hominin species. From the very beginning, thus, our species engaged in artistic and aesthetic activities. Such behaviors seem to be inherent constituents of our human nature. “Humans”—Lorblanchet (2007) wrote—“are by nature artists and the history of art begins with that of humanity”. Adornment, embellishment, and art are intrinsically linked with our species; they constitute an important part of our biological and cultural heritage. The challenge, thus, is to explain the biological foundations of such a unique trait, and to understand how, in interaction with the forces of cultural development, it led to the astounding variety of aesthetic expression around the world today. Answering this question is, in fact, the general goal of the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics.
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