Neuropsychology of Art
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Neuropsychology of Art

Neurological, Cognitive, and Evolutionary Perspectives

Dahlia W. Zaidel

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eBook - ePub

Neuropsychology of Art

Neurological, Cognitive, and Evolutionary Perspectives

Dahlia W. Zaidel

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Über dieses Buch

Fully updated, the second edition of Neuropsychology of Art offers a fascinating exploration of the brain regions and neuronal systems which support artistic creativity, talent and appreciation. This landmark book is the first to draw upon neurological, evolutionary, and cognitive perspectives, and to provide an extensive compilation of neurological case studies of professional painters, composers and musicians.

The book presents evidence from the latest brain research, and develops a multidisciplinary approach, drawing upon theories of brain evolution, biology of art, art trends, archaeology, and anthropology. It considers the consequences of brain damage to the creation of art and the brain's control of art. The author delves into a variety of neurological conditions in established artists, including unilateral stroke, dementia, Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, and also evidence from savants with autism.

Written by a leading neuropsychologist, Neuropsychology of Art will be of great interest to students and researchers in neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and neurology, and also to clinicians in art therapy.

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Approaches to the Neuropsychology of Art


Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, with the establishment of an association between language and brain regions within the left cerebral hemisphere, there has been a trend in neuropsychology to link specific behaviors with discrete regions of the brain. This has largely been accomplished through studies of fractionated cognition following acquired brain injury in neurological patients. The neuroanatomical location of the damage, together with the consequent behavioral breakdown, opened windows on mind–brain associations, particularly those involving language, perception, knowledge, concepts, problem-solving, memory, motor skills, personality, and what are generally considered to be higher cognitive functions. The linking with the brain assumes that the components of the behavior in question are defined. By contrast, the association between art production and brain has proven difficult because art’s components are elusive. What abilities of Michelangelo’s mind went into painting the Sistine Chapel or sculpting Moses or the Pietà? What in Monet’s mind controlled his water lily paintings, or in Gauguin’s his Ancestors of Tehamana painting, or in ancient artists’ paintings on the cave walls at Lascaux and Altamira? Similarly, what were the components of Verdi’s mind when he composed Aida? And what brain mechanisms were at work in the great plays, poems, novels, and ballets that continually remain sources of attraction and fascination? The answers to some of these challenging questions can be explored with the perspectives of neuropsychology.
While practically everyone can learn to speak and comprehend language at an early age, only a select few in modern Western society can create art with qualities that elicit aesthetic reactions and appreciation universally for many centuries and even several millennia. The compositions of such artists seem to incorporate special and unique abilities. Neuropsychological methods, neuroimaging techniques, and physiological recordings provide only a partial view into the “neuro-map” of art production. To gain further clues and insights we need to uncover deeper roots and wider perspectives on the nature of art. We need to consider the life of early humans, their immediate ancestors, the evolution of the human brain itself as well as evidence and discussion from diverse fields such as archaeology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, sexual and mate selection in nature, the fossil record, and ancient art.
Symbolic and abstract thinking is the hallmark of human-unique cognition, and it is only humans who create art spontaneously. Interestingly, despite the fact that anatomically modern humans first surfaced around 200,000 years ago, in Africa, hardly any archaeological evidence for art is associated with them. There is, however, evidence linked to expressions of symbolic cognition in configurations and organization of early human living sites (Wadley et al., 2011), and to earlier trickles of art-relevant expressions from Africa (McBrearty, 2007; McBrearty & Brooks, 2000). The influx of visual art began to emerge only around 45,000 years ago, and this happened in Western Europe (Bahn, 1998). What determined the change from trickle to abundance? Any changes in the morphology of the human brain could not have been sudden. The underlying neuroanatomy and neurophysiology evolved slowly, well before that “abundant” period (Lieberman, 2015). Other conditions coalesced to explain the influx of art productions. This topic is covered in Chapter 10.
The relationship between art production and the brain needs to be charted through the study of artists with localized, focal brain damage. The relationship could benefit a great deal from exploring deficits as well as artistic patterns in established artists after they have sustained the damage. Documentation of their artistic endeavors post-damage helps reveal aspects of the anatomical and functional underpinning of art and brain. The effects of dementing diseases on artists are enormously useful in this regard and such cases are described and discussed (Chapters 2 and 4).
Not all of the arts can be covered in this book. Neurological disorders have been described and published predominantly in visual and musical artists, and to a lesser extent in the writing and dancing arts (Chapter 2). Dance choreography, in particular, is hardly ever treated in the context of neurological brain damage; the one exception known to me is Agnes de Mille, who suffered a stroke, and a description of her case is in Chapter 2. Dancing has been studied a bit more extensively in the context of the aesthetic reaction to it (covered in Chapter 9). Much of what is known about dance and brain activation comes from healthy subjects, and not from the fractionation of behavior following brain damage. Thus, the visual and musical arts dominate the explorations here.

Definitions and purpose of art

What is art? For the most part, art does not seem to have a direct utilitarian or obvious biological purpose, and, yet, it includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, pottery, jewelry, music, dance, theater, creative writing, architecture, film (cinema, movies), photography, and many additional formats. The list is long. A myriad of examples of art works throughout the world complicates the imposition of clear-cut, precise, or logical boundaries on art as a category of human creation. By and large there seems to be a consensus that art is a human-made creation that communicates ideas, concepts, meanings, and emotions, and in this regard it has a social anchor; that art represents human-unique talent, skill, and creativity; and that art gives rise to aesthetic response.
Indeed, the wide range of possible human activities that express art is described by anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake (1988):
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of art in primitive societies is that it is inseparable from daily life, also appearing prominently and inevitably in ceremonial observances. Its variety is as great as the kinds of lives (hunting, herding, fishing, farming) and the types of ritual practices (ceremonies to ensure success in a group venture or to encourage reunification after a group dissension; rites of passage; accompaniments to seasonal changes; memorial occasions; individual and group displays). All these may be accompanied by singing, dancing, drumming, improvisatory versification, reciting, impersonation, performance on diverse musical instruments, or invocations with a special vocabulary. Decorated objects may include masks, rattles, dance staves, ceremonial spears and poles, totem poles, costumes, ceremonial vessels, symbols of chiefly power, human skulls; and objects of use such as head rests or stools, paddles, dilly bags, pipes and spear-throwers, calabashes, baskets, fabric and garments, mats, pottery, toys, canoes, weapons, shields; transport lorry interiors and exteriors; cattle; manioc cakes and yams; or house walls, doors, and window frames. Songs may be used to settle legal disputes or to extol warriors as well as for lullabies and the expression of high spirits. A large part of the environment may be rearranged and shaped for initiation or funeral rites; theatrical displays may go on for hours or days. There may be painting on a variety of surfaces (ground, rock, wood, cloth); piling up of stones or pieces of roasted and decorated pork; considered display of garden produce; body ornamentation (tattooing, oiling, painting). Many of these occasions for art have counterparts in the modern developing world.
(Dissanayake, 1988, pp. 44–45)
As this description shows, art can be many things. We in Westernized societies typically think of art as something viewed in museums or seen in the theater or heard in a concert hall or read in a book. By comparison, the list of artistic expressions provided by Dissanayake demonstrates the motivation, need, and drive as well as the capability that humans possess to create boundless expressions of art. Language, the prime example of the human mind, is characterized by its combinatorial power and infinite potential to create units of meanings through vocabulary, syntax, and prosody. In this regard, art and language share the same human cognitive endowment, namely symbolic and abstract thinking. Art can be infinitely combinatorial, too. It should thus not be surprising that the art of many human societies is nearly limitless in creativity and skill.

Why do humans create art?

Neuropsychological understanding of art must consider early artistic expressions in the course of human evolution (discussed in Chapter 10). The early art forms provide windows onto further insights. An underlying assumption concerning the beginnings is that biological mechanisms were in place to support cognitive abstraction; both art and language are modes of social communication that rely on abstract expressions. The artist and the viewer need to share the same neural substrates in order for abstract concepts to be communicated. Some ancient creations consist of only a few engraved lines grouped to form a simple pattern while others are complex and detailed depictions; similarly, some incorporate colors while others do not. These are all considered to be expressions of symbolic thinking. Prehistoric surviving art rarely depicts stories in scenes, emphasizing instead individual objects such as animals, faces, hands, single dots, figurines, or geometrical shapes. Perhaps, however, the grouping of the individual figures meant something specific in those early societies. Modern viewers ponder even the simplest depictions, attempting to interpret and explain them, whether accurately or not. These attempts reflect the fact that art is a communicative system between artist and viewer. Art is meant for human consumption, to be understood and interpreted by observers whose minds are equally shaped by the brain that houses them.
Regardless of the true reasons behind painting animals on cave walls in prehistoric Western Europe, the caves’ ancient occupants could have experienced an aesthetic reaction not unlike our own as we view these “galleries” nowadays. The driving force behind the depictions could have been social and symbolic, and the satisfaction of viewing symbolic objects could have been purely intellectual (we derive satisfaction from ideas). While artistic expression is broad, and as limitless as language, it is nevertheless a cognitive characteristic of the human brain. The aesthetic response to art seems to cut across human epochs, cultures, mediums, and art styles.
The fact that the practice of art is ubiquitous in all human societies supports the notion of the common origin of Homo sapiens and certainly points toward shared mechanisms for brain and cognitive growth. European artists around the beginning of the twentieth century were greatly influenced by Polynesian and African art. The fact that they were drawn to art from non-Western cultures, incorporated their forms and designs, and, under its influence, willingly changed their own artistic style of representation, illustrates the universal communicative value of art (Snapper, Oranç, Hawley-Dolan, Nissel, & Winner, 2015). Unlike language, which needs to be learned in order to be understood, works of art produced by talented individuals trigger reactions in any and all viewers with no prior training required. Still, the symbolic aspect of language and of representation in art share a common form of cognition unique to humans. Although the two forms of expression take separate routes in what they accomplish and in the effects of their communication, it can nevertheless be said that, with the possible exception of the bowerbird (an avian species known for designing and building complex architectural marvels), only humans create art spontaneously. Since only humans have elaborate syntax and a rich vocabulary, it is only logical to assume that the communicative nature of art has neuroanatomical underpinnings, too. The benefit of communicative systems is that they promote survival through social bonding, and this in turn maximizes survival of the group.

Early beginnings of art production by humans

Neither humans nor animals can construct anything unless their physiological reality permits it. This applies both to brain and body development. The developmental course of the brain after the anatomically modern humans emerged from Africa approximately 100,000 years ago (or maybe even earlier, according to some views; see Mithen & Reed, 2002) was predicted by its neuronal flow-chart. But actual art (symbolic, representational, and nonfunctional) appeared in substantial quantities in Western Europe much later, as mentioned above. From a purely biological perspective, it is hard to conceive that new neurotransmitters and extensive new neuronal pathways with new relay nuclei and projections had abruptly emerged in the brains of Homo sapiens whose art managed to survive compared to those anatomically modern humans whose art did not survive. Rather, it is more reasonable to assume that the development was a gradual adaptation to the environment, one where symbolic cognition led to successful survival (see Chapter 10).
Possible reasons for the emergence of consistently produced art are speculative. In one scenario, possible factors could lie more in the reality of the environment in which early humans found themselves than in any sudden major changes in their brains. Some environments are friendlier than others, meaning that for some it could have been easier to capture and eat the kinds of foods that would further enhance the brain’s biochemistry (Mirnikjoo et al., 2001). Possibly, the presence of the Neanderthals played a pivotal role in ways not yet understood, even if not directly linked to the development of symbolic image-making (Conard, Grootes, & Smith, 2004). However, with everything else being identical, the modern human brain, once formed, had to follow a common path of development and change, and it is likely that it is still evolving. All healthy humans have language no matter where they reside geographically. The brain that supports language is the same one that gives rise to the production of art. Thus, it is not surprising that art is ubiquitous, with similar running motifs, even if artworks are separated by huge bodies of water or impassable mountains, and nor is it surprising that humans share aesthetic reactions (see Chapter 10).
Although, as stated above, anatomically modern humans in Western Europe created art in greater quantity beginning 45,000–35,000 years ago, there is evidence for visual art predating this European period. A small volcanic stone figure, sculpted by human hands and estimated to be around 220,000 years old, was discovered in the Golan Heights of Israel. Careful examination of this figurine supports the practice of symbolic art (d’Errico & Nowell, 2000; Marshack, 1997). Predating that by 130,000 to 180,000 years are some 300 pieces of color pigments and paint-grinding instruments believed to possibly be implements for the decoration of the body and other objects, found in a cave in Twin Rivers, near Lusaka, Zambia (McBrearty, 2012; Wadley et al., 2011; Zaidel, Nadal, Flexas, & Munar, 2013). Did early hominins use these pigments to paint their bodies in order to symbolically resemble animals, either to appropriate their power and agility or possibly for deception, or for socially symbolic reasons, or for all of those reasons and others (perhaps medicinal purposes)? Humans and their immediate ancestors were creating paint to represent ideas well before written language developed, although speech too existed well before writing.
One fascinating feature of the widespread practice of art is some running motifs in creations across distant geographical regions, so far apart that it becomes difficult to imagine the role of direct influence or shared ancestral memory. Consider the pyramids of ancient Egypt and those of the Mayas and the Aztecs—is it coincidence? Did the Mayan and Aztec peoples know of the Egyptian pyramids through legends related by ancestors who originated in Asia and perhaps heard such tales from earlier African ancestors? Consider that the reasons for constructing such monuments were probably the same: a need to construct something colossal in size that had symbolic and religious significance and would serve to impress as well as demonstrate strength and power (regardless of whether or not someone was buried inside). The cognitive processes required to conceive and execute stone constructions of such magnitude are mental properties of a natural biological evolution propelled by genetic control, selection forces, development, and growth of the brain unrelated to where the various humans lived. Human constructions in widely dispersed locations bespeak a shared brain neuroanatomy as well as common cognitive processes.
The most important lesson regarding artwork from ancient, prehistoric times is that its original intended meaning eludes us but its aesthetic appeal does not. This suggests that there is dissociation between the meaning and the aesthetics of art, implying that the latter has a stronger biological basis than the former.

Beauty and its role in art and brain evolution

Perceiving and judging art are not the same as producing it. Extracting beauty from art through the perception of art requires separate brain pathways from producing the art. Beauty in art plays a prominent role in attracting us to it and in enticing us to consider its contents (Zaidel, 2015b). It attracts us to directly ornament our homes with it, listen to it, visit museums and galleries to view it, read it in poetry and prose, and think of it as symbolic of our time and culture. Even without decorations, a single architectural structure can elicit beauty reactions. Paintings, sculptures, pottery, films, and architecture—all elicit neural as well as conscious reactions supposedly through their beauty. Art, however, conveys a meaning independent of its beauty, and this meaning c...


  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Dedication
  6. List of figures
  7. Series preface
  8. Preface to the first edition
  9. Preface to the second edition
  10. 1 Approaches to the neuropsychology of art
  11. 2 The effects of brain damage in established visual artists
  12. 3 The eye and brain in artist and viewer: alterations in visionand color perception
  13. 4 Special visual artists: the effects of savant autism and slow brain atrophy on art production and creativity
  14. 5 Musical art and brain damage I: established composers
  15. 6 Musical art and brain damage II: performing and listening to music
  16. 7 Artists and viewers: components of perception and cognition in visual art
  17. 8 Neuropsychological considerations of drawing and seeing pictures
  18. 9 Reactions to art works: beauty, pleasure, and emotions
  19. 10 Biology, human brain evolution, and the early emergence of art
  20. 11 Further considerations: talent, creativity, and imagination
  21. 12 Conclusion and the future of the neuropsychology of art
  22. Glossary
  23. References
  24. Index
Zitierstile fĂŒr Neuropsychology of Art

APA 6 Citation

Zaidel, D. (2015). Neuropsychology of Art (2nd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2015)

Chicago Citation

Zaidel, Dahlia. (2015) 2015. Neuropsychology of Art. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Zaidel, D. (2015) Neuropsychology of Art. 2nd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Zaidel, Dahlia. Neuropsychology of Art. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.