By Srinjoyi Lahiri
Kelsey Graywill, artist and neuroscientist, describes her life as a never-ending web of dichotomies. Born by the ocean and raised in the mountains, brought up by a computer technician and an artist, it seems natural that Graywill would spend her time weaving together opposites. She is of the belief that things we see as antithetical are normally one and the same, and in pursuit of her lifelong passion of understanding what it means to be human, she has found that you need a little bit of science and art. Using art and science in tandem to discover how the emergence of aesthetic expression is woven into paradigms in philosophy, neuroscience, and evolutionary anthropology, Graywill spent her time as an undergraduate student at Duke University seeking answers at this intersection through neuroaesthetics. She currently resides in London where she is pursuing an MSc in neuroaesthetics at Goldsmiths, University of London. (You can get updates about her research here).
“Neuroaesthetics, for me, was the only discipline that could give me the proper framework and theory for the kind of inquiry I was interested in. At its core, I believe neuroaesthetics is about understanding what gives things meaning – what makes a simple combination of sounds moving, or an image made up of forms and colors awe-inspiring. It asks us to consider how our memories, biology, environment, and individual tastes give significance to all the meaningless things in the world around us, and how, in turn, those once meaningless things make life worth living. To me, there is no more interesting and compelling topic to pursue as a scholar.”
The field of neuroaesthetics exists at the intersection of the arts and brain sciences, furthering our understanding of our own minds and senses by examining the ways in which we come to appreciate and find beauty in nature and our environment. In her words, the mystery of what makes forms significant is packaged within what are considered even larger modern mysteries: the brain and our own evolution as humans.
“Much the same way that every brain is unique, so too are our tastes in art! People prefer and experience art, music, dance, and literature differently, but aesthetic appreciation is so important to humans that we’ve been doing it since we were cavemen drawing on cave walls, before we even had formal language. It’s difficult to uncover the “why” of art in human history because we can’t go back in time to study the origins of art or aesthetics. Neuroscience gives us the tools to understand the “how” – to examine the behavior and biology that governs the way we engage with and respond to art in all its forms. Neuroscience and art are both different ways of understanding ourselves and our world, using both in tandem widens our scope."
“Makings of a Mind” was Graywill’s senior capstone at Duke, which is traditionally a written thesis. However, Graywill wanted to do something that was scientifically sound but still resonant with the average person. She spent a semester researching the cognitive and evolutionary origins of aesthetic appreciation, which informed the eventual curation of the gallery and addressed the question “Why do we find things beautiful?”. For the pieces in the gallery, Graywill decided to use her own landscape paintings as a way to illuminate different paradigms of aesthetic appreciation, like a case study. Nature and landscapes are among the oldest and most well-known subjects of paintings – even people without an interest in visual art are familiar with Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Monet’s Water Lilies.
“The whole process of curating forced me to look at my artwork in ways I never have before. I had to figure out how to use the colors, forms, and compositions of my works to illustrate different aspects of the research I’d done in a way that was still digestible for viewers and helped them understand why they respond the way they do to different pieces. I’ve learned that we tend to retain information well when we engage our senses, so I wanted the gallery to be multi-modal and interactive. I wanted viewers to see, but also to touch and move things around, to feel like they had a sense of autonomy in the space and weren’t just being mindlessly guided by walls of text.”
Sections of the gallery focused on different aspects of neuroaesthetics: evolution and affective responses to art, art and imitation, the emergence of symbolic thinking and patterns. For example, a popular theory in academia about human color preferences is the Ecological Valence Theory, which basically describes how our emotional responses to objects in our environment reflect our existing color-associations. One of my favorite moments from the gallery was the interactive installation titled “Emotional Valence”, where gallery viewers could plot their own emotional reactions to paintings on a graph using colored dots. The use of color to look at emotions as moving along axes from positive to negative, with sometimes an unclear distinction between the two, allowed viewers to recognize the subjectivity of art and, simultaneously, its universality.
Graywill goes on to present Art as Mimesis, which is the re-presentation of nature. Many scholars consider art to be a mimetic form of expression, and Graywill notes that Pluto and Aristotle championed the view that all artistic creation, is in some capacity, imitation. The interactive urges the viewer to consider the truth of this perspective by guessing whether the paintings on the wall represent real or imagined places. Graywill seamlessly moves from an introduction of a new term to engaging the museum goer by posing a new perspective and reviewing relevant historical underpinnings in the process. Serving as a hands-on introduction to neuroaesthetics, Graywill’s interactive gallery installments ask all the questions that the viewers may have and lay a foundation for the answers through the work of artists, scientists, and scholars that came before her.
“I didn’t want to bog viewers down with any kind of jargon, so instead I showed them paintings of flourishing green fields with blue skies that evoked feelings of safety, fertility – not because we can sense the exact acidity of the ground or purity of the air, but because of colors we associate with certain environments. Viewers could examine artworks and actually place their emotional responses on a blank graph affixed to the wall, which filled up with everyone’s individual responses, a collective way to situate our individual tastes. Each interactive component in the gallery gave viewers a chance to think about their responses to the artwork in a different way.”
The gallery then dives into the depths of reconciling our experiences of individual taste, a difficult aspect of understanding the evolution of art. “How can we define a universal language that is communicated in so many different ways?”, the interactive asks. Graywill points out that while some people have an inclination towards music and others may prefer visual art or dance, there is a wider variety of styles that people may prefer even within these aesthetics forms. The “Aesthetics Preferences” interactive provides viewers with an opportunity to adjust components of landscape paintings to suit their individual tastes, and in the process, discover their own aesthetic style. Rich in scientific background and beautifully rendered in technical execution, Graywill’s landscape works provide a solid collection of art with which to explore the biological underpinnings of aesthetic appreciation. The work gives a nod to science by illustrating cognitive and evolutionary theories, while the inclusion of interactive elements illuminates the ways the essence of neuroaesthetics can be explored in our everyday lives, giving the viewers a whole new meaning on aesthetics, what we consider to be an abstract concept.
“I believe that if we pay more attention to how our biases, environments, and tastes impacted our responses to the visual world, we’d be much better off as a society. I didn’t create the gallery to convince every viewer that strolled in to look at pretty paintings that they needed to be educated on neuroaesthetics specifically. My goal was that they might leave a bit more mindful of or curious about the way they look at things.”
“Makings of a Mind” has provided viewers with a digestible, yet thought-provoking collection of works with which to examine the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, a new and rapidly expanding field of research. Our artist, a pioneer in this young and exciting field, confirms its link to our survival as a species, according to evolutionary and cognitive research. Graywill’s exhibition serves the function of helping us to communicate and connect the objective to the subjective, and that we as humans are biologically designed for aesthetic experiences, from the mundane to the sublime. Aesthetic experiences are much more than the sum of individual brain regions or activities. Instead, Graywill’s gallery reflects the complex and sophisticated philosophical and anthropological mechanisms at play, as well as their impact on the mind and body in the experiences of aesthetic perception.
Neuroaesthetics is on the verge of redefining 21st-century problem-solving. Through its interdisciplinary lens, revolutionary research on the interface of multiple fields is addressing some of the most difficult issues of our time, including chronic stress, learning differences, depression and mental illness. Its potential benefits transcend class, gender, age, race, and culture, making it invaluable in the academic sphere. Graywill, commenting on the mysticity of neuroaesthetics, claims: “The neat boundaries we have tucked modern disciplines into are what make sense to us, they are familiar, but even the field of neuroscience did not exist a century ago. Disciplines as they exist are constructs and inquiry existing outside those definitions is no less valuable – interdisciplinary work brings new perspectives and ways of thinking. There is a general sentiment that neuroaesthetics is some newfangled science – it’s true it has only emerged into its own within the last couple decades – but it’s really very closely related to empirical aesthetics, a psychological discipline that has been around since the mid 20th century!” By continuing to carve out her own unique spaces, Kelsey endeavors to venture into uncharted and ambitious territories in art-science convergence, and hopes that in making connections and serving people, she can better understand how humans live and express themselves. As she continues to urge others to search for the ways in which arts and sciences can be integrated, we applaud Kelsey’s dedication to the convergence of disciplines.
You can find the full interview with Kelsey Graywill here.
High School Senior - Communications, Blog Contributor, Media
As an art and neuroscience enthusiast, I do not think these fields are mutually exclusive. Through service learning, I have discovered how photography distracted a cancer patient from pain. Art gallery tours for adults with Alzheimer’s disease have shown me that dementia patients are engaged museum visitors with insights to offer. In today’s increasingly diverse world, I believe we can not afford to live a life untranslated. This is why I am fascinated by the work the Convergence Initiative is doing, bridging gaps between distinct communities and ideas, neuroscience and art. The world possesses so many layers and nuances, and it demands that we give attention to intersections. Because, in the end, an inclusive world is not formed by the eradication of differences, but by its affirmation.