A neuroscientist's view: how Bacon's paintings shake up the nervous system

Publication focuses on what neuroscience and psychology bring to the table with the late artist's works

Some scientists suggest that Bacon’s device of distorting faces and bodies, as in Pope No. 2 (1960), produces neural, as well as aesthetic, shocks © The Estate of Francis Bacon

For some 20 years now, a subfield of the neurosciences called neuroaesthetics has been investigating the neurobiological under-pinnings of human art behaviour. Using brain scanners to probe neural activity while people experience works of art, this research effort has predominantly pursued two central questions: how does the brain come to like or dislike objects it encounters, and how does it represent art objects perceptually, cognitively and emotionally?

While these and other questions of interest to neuroaesthetics are primarily motivated by a desire to understand the peculiarities of the human nervous system, it is worth asking what a neuroscience of art behaviour contributes to our understanding of art. The main answer is that neuroaesthetics helps broaden our conception of art from a specific kind of object to something humans do.

Art is one of the most profound ways humans use to manipulate their surrounding physical world. We use art to craft social structure, modulating human interaction through images, dance, music and storytelling. Engaging with art helps us voluntarily to regulate the physiological state of the body, influencing mood, thinking, autonomic arousal and motor activity. Neuroasthetics ultimately hopes to explain what aspects of our nervous system make this suite of behavioural traits possible—what makes Homo sapiens compulsive art creators and users.

A recently published book, Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology, collects five essays on the oeuvre of Francis Bacon, one of which is by a neuro-art historian, and one of which is by two experimental neuroscientists. All five essays take as their starting point an interest in advancing our understanding of what Bacon’s paintings tried to do and convey. All rely on traditional methods of interpretation in order to identify significant themes, ideas, images, or formal devices in Bacon’s work that need explication. What, then, does “neuroscience and psychology” bring to the table?

Bacon attempted to project onto the canvas experiences that formed an “assault” on his nervous system in such a way that the resulting images themselves would impart a shock to the viewer

There are probably two ways neuroscience can be used to inform interpretation of an artist’s work. One is by helping to illuminate ideas in the work of artists concerned with issues associated with mind and brain. Bacon and the Mind suggests that such issues played an important role in Bacon’s work. All five essays make the point that Bacon’s paintings can be seen as an intermediate between Bacon’s own “nervous system” and that of the viewer. More specifically, Bacon attempted to project onto the canvas experiences that formed an “assault” on his nervous system in such a way that the resulting images themselves would impart a shock to the viewer. The authors trace well-known “wounds” in Bacon’s life—his childhood, his sexuality, George Dyer’s death—and analyse how they are transformed into visual devices that conjure unease, surprise and alarm in the viewer as well, including Bacon’s trademark distortions of faces and bodies.

The book makes the interesting observation that Bacon himself acknowledged this centrality of interaction between painting and mind in his work. He famously said that he sought to represent an inner state in his paintings, calling them “patterns of one’s nervous system”. Yet, while these observations establish mind and the brain as important topics in Bacon’s oeuvre, none of the authors provide any neuroscientific evidence for why these issues so preoccupied Bacon, nor why he chose to paint them in the way he did. Any of the theories they advance – even John Onians’s speculative attempt to root Bacon’s obsessions in how his brain was moulded by childhood experiences – could just as easily have been presented without recourse to any technical understanding of how the brain works.

The second way neuroscience can possibly assist our understanding of meaning-construction in works of art is to provide evidence that viewers are in fact susceptible to a hypothesised effect. All the authors claim that the central impact of Bacon’s paintings consists in their ability to shock the viewer’s nervous system, but only the chapter by Semir Zeki and Tomohiro Ishizu makes an attempt to explain how and why Bacon’s paintings are able to exert this power. Zeki and Ishizu describe how the brain’s visual system is conditioned by evolution to engage visual stimuli in specific ways. Specifically, the visual system contains dedicated neural systems for recognising bodies and faces. Because these systems have evolved to elicit robust responses to stereotypical stimulus properties that represent human bodies and faces, any distortion to such a stimulus will perturb their way of working, causing a visual disturbance. Zeki and Ishizu suggest that Bacon’s paintings succeed in shocking us because they effectively distort how our visual system expects a body or a face to look.

The human brain elicits negative emotions when it experiences a distorted face

I find this hypothesis intuitively persuasive. It should be noted, however, that Zeki and Ishizu provide no experimental evidence for it. No study so far has investigated if the visual system responds in the way they suggest when people view a painting by Bacon. Furthermore, I also personally believe that Zeki and Ishizu’s hypothesis leaves out an important component: the emotional import of Bacon’s paintings. Why are Bacon’s distorted faces experienced as shocking? Because the human brain elicits negative emotions when it experiences a distorted face. (Because distorted faces, from an evolutionary point of view, are associated with the presence of disease or pathogens.)

To me as a neuroscientist, one of the most striking things about Bacon’s paintings is that he deliberately crafted images that provoke negative emotions: ugly colours, deformed human bodies, etc. If our analysis of his work only includes meaning and formal devices, we lose sight of this elemental fact. One hopes that, in the future, neuroscience and traditional art scholarship can collaborate better to bring our emotional responses to art to the fore.

Martin Harrison, ed. Bacon and the Mind: Art, Neuroscience and Psychology, Thames & Hudson, 160pp, £28(hb)

Martin Skov is a neuroscientist at the Danish Research Centre for Magnetic Resonance, Copenhagen University Hospital Hvidovre, Denmark. He has, among other things, published Neuroaesthetics (Baywood, 2009). He tweets at @mskov01