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Art and the Brain (neuroarthistory) Approach - A reductionist and determinist approach to use neuroscience in the study of art in history, anthropology and archeology. The approach was developed in the School of World Art Studies University of East Angliaand the term was coined by a group of postgraduate art history students (calling themselves the Art and the Brain Group) who where the first students to apply neuroscience to art studies, a discipline which became known as Neuroarthistory.


In 2004 a group of six postgraduates of the School of World Art Studies, University of East Anglia (UEA) Norwich, all enrolled on the MA World Art, and naming themselves after the paper by Neuroscientist Semir Zeki “Art and the Brain” [1]conducted a series of seminars and research projects on neuroscience and art history, supervised by the eminent Art Historian Professor John Onians, himself a pupil of Ernst Gombrich. The Art and the Brain Group intended to be multidisciplinary and expand upon the work of Gombrich, and their individual backgrounds represented this; they consisted of two archaeologists, an art historian, two bioscientists, and a philosopher – reminiscent of the University of East Anglia motto “do different”. The group produced innovative research in their particular areas of interest which ranged from bronze age archeology[2], to facial empathy[3], and from stone age archaeology[4] to the influence of the ecological environment[5], all using a mixture of archaeology, anthropology, art history, and neuroscience. They met and discussed “art and the brain” with Semir Zeki in 2005 in which he reiterated his position that “all artists are neurologists, that musicians are also neurologists”, and [that] Wagner was the greatest of neurologists” [6]. The group focused on such concepts as neuronal synaptic plasticity, mirror neurons and peak shift effect.

The Principles[edit]

Neural Plasticity (neuronal synaptic plasticity)is a principle first used in Art History by John Onians to explain Art as a world phenomena from its biological basis and to explain the changes in styles in history, and even the origins of art in prehistory. Neural plasticity is the basis of the brains ability to adapt to a changing environment via the alteration of synaptic connections, that is the connections between neurons which form our cognitive machinery[7]. This adaptability of neural synapses represents the nervous systems capacity to change and is involved in the development of new skills and new memories, and therefore also preferences with regard to art and design history.

Mirror Neurons Is a principle first applied to Art History by John Onians. Mirror neurons are a class of neuron that are found in the broca’s region of the brain that fire when one manipulates an object or when one views someone else manipulating an object with their hands, but also for mouth actions and foot actions[8]. The consequence of this is that we can build-up the relevant motor models in our brains to mentally and later physically re-enact the same action just by watching, or to gain an empathy[9] with a person, action, object, or even a landscape. This concept was used to understand the interface between culture and the ecological environment and hence trends in art history as well as the origins of art in prehistory.

Peak shift effect describes a biological response to visual cues that can be exaggerated by exaggerating the stimulus. It was first proposed as relevant to Art History by V.S Ramachandran in 1999 [10] For example this concept can be used to explain why someone who has lived in Manhattan all their lives may be more inclined to buy art with strong vertical lines and receding diagonals. That the stronger the vertical and diagonals the more interest they invest in the image[11]. The distinguished art historian Ernst Gombrich was one of many to criticize Ramachandran's use of peak shift effect[12].


Ultimately the result of the art and the brain approach/taught postgraduate module was the publication of the book Neuroarthistory[13] by John Onians.


  1. ^ Zeki S(1999) ‘Art and the Brain’ Art and the Brain Journal of Consciousness Studies Vol.6-7 June/July pp.76-96 Exeter, Imprint Academic
  2. ^ Herrell L (2005 Unpublished MA Dissertation): The changing social role of the Cauldron from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in Britain.
  3. ^ Holton J (2005 Unpublished MA Dissertation): Face to face an exploration of the unique place of the human face in inter-personal communication.
  4. ^ Coleman H (2005 Unpublished MA Dissertation): Therianthropes revisited. Constructs and contexts.
  5. ^ Beeton A (2005 Unpublished MA Dissertation): Art, the brain and the environment a preliminary application of science to art studies.
  6. ^; Beeton asked the question of Zeki "do you still stand by your statement[from the 1999 paper Art and the Brain] that 'all artists are neurologists’?"Tuesday 15 February 2005
  7. ^ Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, Katz LC, Lamantia LC, McNamara JO, Williams SM (Editors) (2001) Neuroscience 2nd edition, Massachusetts, Sinauer associates Inc.
  8. ^ Buccino G, Binkofski F, Riggio L (2004) ‘The mirror system and action recognition’ Brain and Language 89 pp370-376
  9. ^ Gallese V (2001) ‘The “Shared Manifold” Hypothesis: From Mirror Neurons to Empathy’ Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol.8 No.5-7 pp33-50
  10. ^ Ramachandran VS & Hirstein W (1999) ‘The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience’Art and the Brain Journal of Consciousness Studies Vol.6-7 June/July pp.15-51 Exeter, Imprint Academic
  11. ^ Onians J (1996) ‘Architecture and painting: the biological connection’ in The Built Surface Volume 1: Architecture and the pictorial arts from antiquity to the Enlightenment ed. C. Anderson, Ashgate
  12. ^ add reference
  13. ^ Onians J (2008) Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki Yale University Press