A neuroscientist’s view: how Bacon’s paintings shake up the nervous system

Some scientists suggest that Bacons device of distorting faces and bodies, as in Pope No. 2 (1960), produces neural, as well as aesthetic, shocks © The Estate of Francis Bacon

For some 20 years now, a subfield of the neurosciences called neuroaesthetics has been investigating the neurobiological under-pinnings of human art behaviour. Using brain scanners to probe neural activity while people experience works of art, this research effort has predominantly pursued two central questions: how does the brain come to like or dislike objects it encounters, and how does it represent art objects perceptually, cognitively and emotionally?

While these and other questions of interest to neuroaesthetics are primarily motivated by a desire to understand the peculiarities of the human nervous system, it is worth asking what a neuroscience of art behaviour contributes to our understanding of art. The main answer is that neuroaesthetics helps broaden our conception of art from a specific kind of object to something humans do.

Art is one of the most profound ways humans use to manipulate their surrounding physical world. We use art to craft social structure, modulating human interaction through images, dance, music and storytelling. Engaging with art helps us voluntarily to regulate the physiological state of the body, influencing mood, thinking, autonomic arousal and motor activity. Neuroasthetics ultimately hopes to explain what aspects of our nervous system make this suite of behavioural traits possible—what makes Homo sapiens compulsive art creators and users.

A recently published book, Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology, collects five essays on the oeuvre of Francis Bacon, one of which is by a neuro-art historian, and one of which is by two experimental neuroscientists. All five essays take as their starting point an interest in advancing our understanding of what Bacons paintings tried to do and convey. All rely on traditional methods of interpretation in order to identify significant themes, ideas, images, or formal devices in Bacons work that need explication. What, then, does “neuroscience and psychology” bring to the table?

Bacon attempted to project onto the canvas experiences that formed an “assault” on his nervous system in such a way that the resulting images themselves would impart a shock to the viewer

There are probably two ways neuroscience can be used to inform interpretation of an artists work. One is by helping to illuminate ideas in the work of artists concerned with issues associated with mind and brain. Bacon and the Mind suggests that such issues played an important role in Bacons work. All five essays make the point that Bacons paintings can be seen as an intermediate between Bacons own “nervous system” and that of the viewer. More specifically, Bacon attempted to project onto the canvas experiences that formed an “assault” on his nervous system in such a way that the resulting images themselves would impart a shock to the viewer. The authors trace well-known “wounds” in Bacons life—his childhood, his sexuality, George Dyers death—and analyse how they are transformed into visual devices that conjure unease, surprise and alarm in the viewer as well, including Bacons trademark distortions of faces and bodies.

The book makes the interesting observation that Bacon himself acknowledged this centrality of interaction between painting and mind in his work. He famously said that he sought to represent an inner state in his paintings, calling them “patterns of ones nervous system”. Yet, while these observations establish mind and the brain as important topics in Bacons oeuvre, none of the authors provide any neuroscientific evidence for why these issues so preoccupied Bacon, nor why he chose to paint them in the way he did. Any of the theories they advance – even John Onianss speculative attempt to root Bacons obsessions in how his brain was moulded by childhood experiences – could just as easily have been presented without recourse to any technical understanding of how the brain works.

The second way neuroscience can possibly assist our understanding of meaning-construction in works of art is to provide evidence that viewers are in fact susceptible to a hypothesised effect. All the authors claim that the central impact of Bacons paintings consists in their ability to shock the viewers nervous system, but only the chapter by Semir Zeki and Tomohiro Ishizu makes an attempt to explain how and why Bacons paintings are able to exert this power. Zeki and Ishizu describe how the brains visual system is conditioned by evolution to engage visual stimuli in specific ways. Specifically, the visual system contains dedicated neural systems for recognising bodies and faces. Because these systems have evolved to elicit robust responses to stereotypical stimulus properties that represent human bodies and faces, any distortion to such a stimulus will perturb their way of woRead More – Source