Interview with John Onians, Pioneer in Neuroarthistory

What is the connection between art and neuroscience? And how can this help to develop a more inclusive and non-Eurocentric approach to art history? Answers and ideas in the words of John Onians, a pioneer in the field

John Onians
John Onians

The British art historian John Onians (1942) is Emeritus Professor of World Art at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. His interests range from in-depth analysis of Italian Renaissance architecture and Greek and Roman art to experimenting with a broad approach to art as a world phenomenon, such as the geography of art. Onians is the pioneer in Neuroarthistory and author of Neuroarth History: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki (2008), and European art: A history of neuro-art (2017).


What is neuroarthritis?
There Neuroarthistory is the art history that exploits the discoveries of neuroscience. It has long been known that both the making of art and responding to art require intensive use of our neural resources, especially those that serve the eye and the hand. Only recently, however, have technologies such as brain scanning made it possible to analyze and understand the complex processes involved. The result has been that we can now improve our answers to old art historical questions and engage in new ones. Based on the work of previous thinkers, from Aristotle to Gombrich, Neuroarthistory uses the latest knowledge about the structure of the brain and the principles that govern its function, to explain the processes involved in the creation, visualization, use and interpretation of all types of art. ., of all places and all ages.

How does it work in detail?
Neuroarthritis can take many forms, from the most modest to the most ambitious. It may involve using only one aspect of neuroscience to complement existing approaches to studying a particular object, such as a painting like the Mona Lisa (J. Onians, Leonardo and Michelangelo’s distinctive creativity, The secrets of creativity. What neuroscience, art and our minds reveal. S. Nalbantian and PM Matthews, Oxford 2019, 353-375). Or it could be more ambitious to call for a whole new consideration of all human mental activity, recognizing that the reason we possess a brain and nervous system, not, as has often been assumed, is to put ourselves in able to think, but as with everyone else. other animals, to help us move physically in ways that ensure the successful transfer of our genetic material.

What role does art play in this scenario?
Art, like all other actions facilitated by our nervous system, is therefore somehow viscerally important to us, being more relevant to our physical survival than we were previously aware of. The newly discovered role of our nervous system in promoting our physical survival helps explain why it possesses some extraordinary properties that have been selected by evolution. One is neural plasticity: the property that ensures that connections in our neural network are not, as previously assumed, fixed, but changeable and subject to constant change in response to variations in our experiences, thus ensuring that they are always adapted to our special circumstances. Another feature is neural mirroring. This ensures, among other things, that we are responsible, unconsciously, to imitate and understand actions from those around us, and thus make our behavior more compatible with our specific environment.
Knowing the neural principles on which these properties are based provides new insights into many behaviors related to art. For example, since these environmentally driven neural processes are biological and to some extent predictable, we can say that the more we know someone’s material and social environment, the more we will know about their mental activity. Given what we know about the principles that govern neural formation, we can now reconstruct prominent aspects of the neural resources that allow individuals and groups to adapt to their context. Knowledge of the principles of neuroscience thus gives us a new access to individuals’ mental lives without us having to either talk to them or put them in a scanner.

John Onians, European Art.  A Neuroarthistory (Yale University Press, New Haven London 2016)
John Onians, European Art. A Neuroarthistory (Yale University Press, New Haven London 2016)


How did you get interested in neuroarthritis?
As a graduate student in the 1960s, my supervisor, EH Gombrich, introduced me to the psychology of art, and then, in the 1970s, neuroscientist Colin Blakemore warned me about the potential role of neuroscience in this psychology. The importance of this role was then highlighted in the 1980s by my search for an instrument that would give me equal access to art from all peoples around the world from prehistoric times to the present day and free me from traditional limitations within the disciplines. . . The use of neuroscience, which no longer requires giving priority to words and thinking in consciousness and rationality, allows me to understand the importance of mental activity, which is expressed in bodily actions controlled by vital needs, is recorded in the intestines.

What are the main differences between Neuroarthistory and other methods and theories of art history?
The other historical-artistic methods and theories, following a tradition dating back to ancient Greece, tend to treat words as the best expression of the human mind. Most have not yet accepted the insights generated by the latest neuroscience. They therefore have little awareness of the importance of the nervous system for all human mental activity. Neuroarthritis, on the other hand, as it recognizes that the nervous system connects the higher functions of the mind to all parts of the body, limbs, intestines, and senses, deals with aspects of the experience ignored by other approaches, such as physical movement, sensations, emotions, and memory. Neuroarthistor fully recognizes the role of the physical in the mental.
It also more fully recognizes the role of individuality. Other approaches treat art primarily as a cultural manifestation, shaped by rational thinking and verbal exchanges, focusing on explanations that are social and group. Neuroarthistory, on the other hand, recognizes that neural formation is individual, being a product of the interaction between a person’s genetic neural inheritance at birth and changes in his or her personal experiences.

Some researchers have criticized Neuroarthistory as a purely scientific method that does not take into account cultural influences on the brain in shaping art. What do you think?
This view is based on a misunderstanding. Neuroscience history is not “purely scientific”, but uses scientific knowledge as an aid to understanding well-known cultural processes such as the formation and dissemination of preferences, values ​​and ideologies. In my case, science tells me that I am color blind because of my genetic inheritance. It also clarifies the cultural strategies I can adopt to compensate for that deficit.

John Onians, Neuroarthistory.  From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki (Yale University Press, New Haven London 2007)
John Onians, Neuroarthistory. From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki (Yale University Press, New Haven London 2007)


After 1989, contemporary art broke through the western borders and became global. Therefore, global art needed a new approach to art history. To help develop art history as a global discipline and avoid Eurocentrism, many universities have sought to adopt a more inclusive curriculum and added more non-Western art history courses. Can neuroarthritis facilitate the process?
Of course yes! In fact, one of the main motivations behind the development of Neuroarthistory was the desire to find an approach that was equally applicable to all peoples, places, and periods. One of the problems with all previous approaches to art, including those adopted in many of the new non-Western art history courses, is that they generally continue to perpetuate Eurocentric prejudices. For example, if one still assumes that the best way to approach a culture is through language and the study of verbal expressions in general, they reinforce the snobbery that primarily supports European and Western dominance. Furthermore, by emphasizing the importance of language that no one can master more than a tot, they make it much more difficult to develop an approach that refers to the totality of artistic production. The biological principles that support neuroscience are universal. By applying them, we treat all people and all periods of equality.

What are your suggestions for those interested in neuroarthritis?
One of the best ways to take full advantage of Neuroarthistory is to become aware of your own neural history, or the extent to which your individual mental training is a product of your particular experiences. Once this is done, you will more easily follow the neural stories of the people who have created and used the art you are studying. The more you are able to reconstruct the brain formation of each of them, the more you will understand their particular relationship to art.

Mohsen Veysi

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