Neuroscience does not explain the piano concerto, and it does not ever fully explain the writings of Shakespeare. But because neuroscience is the newest kid on the block and has a trendy cachet, some believe it can explain Hamlet and all other art in ways that will fundamentally alter our understanding.
But I don't believe it.
Morgan Meis's article "This Is Your Brain on Art," in The Smart Set (March 17/11) discusses these issues in his review of V.S. Ramachandran's book The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for what Makes Us Human. The article is well written and a balanced discussion, although Meis at least somewhat believes that the findings of neuroscience will deeply shift our relationship with art.
In his review, Meis points out that Ramachandran does not claim to explain the ultimate meaning of art, just that "making art and appreciating art seems [sic] to be universal in the human species" :
Neuroscience is not meant to replace other standpoints from which we appreciate and analyze art. Ramachandran thinks, in general, that neuroscience can make significant contributions to aesthetics without otherwise encroaching on the humanities. Our love of Shakespeare, he argues, is not diminished by our understanding of universal grammar.Ramachandran gets it because he understands the science and understands its limits, but so many non-scientists want to base every field of study and area of human endeavour on neuroscience. So we have brain-based Shakespeare, brain-based leadership, brain-based art history, brain-based relationships, etc., etc., etc....
Individually, it is a personal choice to base one's life on misunderstood science written about in popular culture, but we shouldn't rush to re-write social policy and whole academic disciplines based on it. (I've written about this in literary studies; there is a trend towards neuroscience as full explanation of literature.)
I believe that our relationship with art is not most importantly about hard-wiring and synapses, that is about the material. The importance of our relationship with art is existential and beyond science.
Mirror, Mirror) is about phantom limb pain and how the brain responds to a mirror image in place of a missing leg. Shakespeare, in Hamlet, presents the play within his play to hold up a kind of mirror image to Claudius, an image that contains Claudius's missing guilt.
The more things change, the more they stay the same! The mechanism in both images - the Renaissance understanding of the psyche and twenty-first century understanding of the brain - is that the viewer will respond as if the missing element is indeed present and act accordingly.
Ramachandran's mirror image and neuroscience, generally, contribute to our understanding of humanity and art. But, like Shakespeare's play within the play, it is only part of a much larger, complex, and maybe inexplicable whole.
Meis writes: "We are going to go forward into the unknown in the quest to make art fully knowable and we'll deal with the consequences when we've arrived, joyful in our accomplishments and sad, too, at the inevitable loss of all that has been left behind."
Loss? I don't believe it.