UC students shown here in professor Kris Holland class at DAAP Thursday March 10, 2022. Photo by Joseph Fuqua II

ARTE3041/NS3041: From Neurons to Picasso

How and Why the Brain Makes Art

Instructor: Kristopher Holland & Ilya Vilinsky

Includes a required study tour to France


This course investigates how and why the brain makes art.  In order to explore the basics of neuroscience and art this course combines the fields of scientific and art inquiry. The brain is an increasingly understood, but still ultimately mysterious part of the human body. At a basic level this course explores the connections between art and science. Topics include: Human Evolution, Neurophysiology, The Embodied Mind, The Emergence of Art, The Perception of Form, Color and Motion, The Philosophy of Technology, The Learning Sciences, Reason, Consciousness, and Aesthetics.

With a particular focus on the evolutionary co-development of the brain and artistic practices (from making tools, to making art and science), we aim to demonstrate how the behavior of art (Dissanayake) truly makes our species unique. In addition, we want to link this biological imperative with technological practices (art and science) found in contemporary art and design discourse in order to demonstrate how significant art was and is in the story of human beings. In essence we will show how the same biological structures, when encountering the new contexts of materiality, technology, and culture today, continue to ontologically shape or design our species.

The prevailing view most people have of visual art is that it is ‘creative self-expression,’ or worse, an isolated act of leisure. For design, most people might say it is merely functional or a solution to a problem. Similarly, most people think of the brain as simply a large, biologically- based computer that stores bits of information, retrieves them mechanistically in response to stimuli, and commands the rest of the body as if it were the pilot of an otherwise inert vessel. A fundamental goal of this course is to radically shift people’s perception of the visual arts and design toward understanding them as processes of human inquiry and ontologically significant towards affecting the trajectory of the human species. We aim to accomplish this through examination of how sensation works as a holistic interaction between the body and the mind, with input and output as a unified cycle forming an internal sensory simulation. We see this course, with its exploration of the origins of art-design inquiry via neuroscience, as a way of generating knowledge; analyzing the past in order to generate possibilities for looking to where our species is headed. 

Students will not be required to have knowledge of neuroscience, design (ontological design), evolutionary theory, or contemporary art to be in this course. Rather, we envision this course as a way to create informed explorers and connoisseurs of neuroscience, art and design inquiry that understand and articulate the way scientists and artists-designers have, in both ancient and modern times, employed research methods and technologies to make sense of the world around them.

We are situating art and design as a vital inquiry and/or research process in global culture and the humanities. As a result, students will: 1) become acquainted with the aspects the history of art and design in terms of evolutionary theory, and neuroscience, 2) be aware of issues that reveal how art-design inquiry ‘makes the world,’ (ontological design) through the use of neuroscientific discourse, and 3) perhaps most importantly, students will gain respect, understanding, and become advocates for art and design as inquiry – a vital practice reflecting the implicit (neuro)biological structure of our species.

UC students shown here in professor Kris Holland class at DAAP Thursday March 10, 2022. Photo by Joseph Fuqua II

Why take this course?

This course emphasizes research/creative arts and scientific research/natural sciences to build an understanding of neuro-scientific principles and art as an inquiry practice. This course projects the view that all human beings are evolutionarily driven to make art. In order to unravel the discourse of the history of art as a human behavior it is necessary to understand how the inquiry process informs our evolutionary past and present (neuroscience). Located in galleries, museums, businesses (signage, logos, company art collections), social protests, music videos, sporting events, etc., visual art is part of the landscape of being a citizen today and, as we will discover, was 40,000 years ago. This course will educate students on what arts-based inquiry is, and how the historical and contemporary impact thinking of art this way has on all types of culture (high, low, popular, sub-cultures, etc.), and build a capacity to understand the basic principles of neuroscience. 

Structured around experiential learning, and the assumption that students are not artists nor neuroscientists, the classroom discussions and project-based learning opportunities will provide the opportunity to research and contextualize real world investigations on the function of art in neuroscience. Questions we will address will include: 1) What is art? 2) What is the brain, and what does it do? 3) What role does the brain play in the overall history of image making? 4) Why art-design inquiry should be considered a behavior? 5) How does the biological imperative of art-design inquiry impact current issues in our species evolution? 

This course will construct an experience through which students will progress from thinking of art and design as simply expression or problem solving, to well-informed art and design based inquiry based on neuroscience empirical research. Students will be able to deconstruct the myths of art and design as well as computation and perception, and properly place these inquiries as the vital part our brains function and evolutionary history.