It’s not hard to imagine a future when neurohumanities and neuroaesthetics have become so adulated that they rise up and out of the academy. Soon enough, they may seep into writers’ colonies and artists’ studios, where “culture producers” confronting a sagging economy and a distracted audience will embrace “Neuro Art” as their new selling point. Will writers start creating characters and plots designed to trigger the “right” neuronal responses in their readers and finally sell 20,000 copies rather than 3,000? Will artists, and advertisers who use artists, employ the lessons of neuroaestheticism to sharpen their neuromarketing techniques? After all, Robert T. Knight, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Berkeley, is already the science adviser for NeuroFocus, a neuromarketing company that follows the engagement and attention of potential shoppers. When neuroaesthetics is fully put to use in these ways, it may do as Alva Noë said: “reduce people and culture to ends, simply to be manipulated or made marketable.”
And he has a point. Today, there’s the sudden dominance of so many ways to quantify things that used to be amorphous and that we imagined were merely expressive or personal: Big Data, Facebook, ubiquitous surveillance, the growing use of pharmaceuticals to control our moods and minds. In other words, neurohumanities is not just a change in how we see paintings or read nineteenth-century novels. It’s a small part of the change in what we think it means to be human.
Perhaps I have an answer to the question I asked a few months ago, then. Maybe people will look back on the early 21st century and laugh at the way so many educated people thought that the colored lights of fMRI studies would offer truer or deeper explanations of human existence rather than simply rewording what we already know.