“Some art historians are enthusiastic [about neuroaesthetics], and others think it’s ridiculous,” said Kandel. “They say, ‘What does it have to offer? It demeans art to think that it has a biological explanation.’ But they should not worry: Neuroscience is not going to replace an art-historical approach to art; it’s going to supplement and enrich it.
“This is a very interesting experiment on the part of [the Peabody Essex Museum],” Kandel continued. “One of the things that strikes me with many current exhibitions is that they’re too damn large! It’s absolutely exhausting to go through them.”
For her part, Asher is sensitive to the fact that her appointment is a landmark event—but she’s also eager to focus on the business at hand. The challenge before her is to apply lessons from carefully designed experiments in a laboratory setting to the business of running an art museum with more than 300 personnel and an operating budget of $30 million. “The way [my colleagues here] talk about things feels much less structured than in the science world, where it is much more about connecting the dots,” she said. “I feel like there is more fluidity to how things are approached in a museum.”
After our interview, we entered the museum to see ’s All the Flowers Are for Me
, an immersive installation in which the white cube has been converted into a light chamber, with a foliate pattern projected on the floor, walls, and ceiling. Encased in a lemon-colored aureole, Asher expounded on the neurological processes at work in our experience of the installation—and the sensation of being caressed by light.
“Your experience of this installation depends on what it reminds you of,” she said. “When you recall a memory, the regions of your cortex that process different senses become activated. So, if you’re looking at an image of a fur coat, you might feel as though you can touch the fur, and that’s because that part of your brain that would process the tactile experience is becoming activated by the memory.”
“But, of course,” she added, “it’s all in your mind.”
—Christopher Snow Hopkins