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Neural Concept Formation & Art Dante, Michelangelo, Wagner Something, and indeed the ultimate thing, must be left over for the mind to do.

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What is art? What constitutes great art? Why do we value art so much and why has it been such a conspicuous feature of all human societies? These questions have been discussed at length though without satisfactory resolution. This is not surprising. Such discussions are usually held without reference to the brain, through which all art is conceived, executed and appreciated. Art has a biological basis. It is a human activity and, like all human activities, including morality, law and religion, depends upon, and obeys, the laws of the brain. To understand the biological foundations of art, we must enquire into the biological foundations of knowledge, for art constitutes a form of knowledge; indeed is knowledge. We are still far from knowing the neural basis of the laws that dictate artistic creativity, achievement and appreciation, but spectacular advances in our knowledge of the visual brain allow us to make a beginning in trying to formulate neural laws of art and aesthetics; in short, to study neuroaesthetics. In this essay, I try to discuss the art of three Titanic figures in Western culture — Dante, Michelangelo and Wagner — in neurological terms. I try to show that we can trace the origins of their art to a fundamental characteristic of the brain, namely its capacity to form concepts. This capacity is itself the by-product of an essential characteristic of the brain. That characteristic is abstraction, and is imposed upon the brain by one of its chief functions, namely the acquisition of knowledge.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT. Email:

Publication date: March 1, 2002

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