An interview I did with V S Ramachadran has just appeared in the November issue of The Psychologist magazine (free online access in six months time, if you want the PDF now email me).

Not all of our conversation made it into the published article, so here is an extra bit of text that has nowhere else to be. Prof. Ramachandran had been speaking at the Winchester Festival of Art and the Mind about the psychological laws which underlie the construction and appreciation of visual art:

TS : You say your “universal laws” may pertain to less than 10% of art…the remaining 90% of variance being driven by culture. But couldnt an art historian argue that it is precisely this 90% thats interesting about art? Isn’t the universal 10% just about perception rather than art?

VSR : Well it depends on what you mean by “interesting”… the question is interesting for whom? Art historians are interested in the 90% .. its what they do for a living. Scientists, on the other hand, are interested in precisely the 10% that cuts across cultural boundaries.

Secondly I prefer to use the phrase “Aesthetic universals” or “laws” rather than “laws of ART”. Art is a loaded word that has now come to mean anything and everything that anyone wants to call “art” – such as Damien Hirst’s pickled cows- and thats not a good place for a scientist to start. If you dilute the meaning of the word art to encompass any entity – then there isn’t much to study.

Third your suggestion that the 10% I’m calling “universal laws” applies only to the earlier less interesting perceptual component of art rather than aesthetic response is based on the now out-moded strictly modular hierarchic bucket-brigade view of perception put forward by David Marr, Fodor and other AI researchers who knew very little about the brain. The boundary between where perception ends and where visual aesthetics begins isnt all that clear cut.. in fact there are probably innumerable feedback messages from high level object parsing, limbic emotional circuits, and so called perceptual principles of object segmentation … these feedback signals are what generate the multiple “aha” signals for each partial glimpse of object-like chunk; “Ahas” that the artist exploits. As I said its “visual foreplay before the climax of recognition and arousal”.