the story behind the book

Alva Noë on art, perception, and neuroscience

mark wilson for the boston globe

Alva Noë is a professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley, specializing in the nature of perception and consciousness — or, as he puts it, the place “where philosophy meets cognitive science or neuroscience.” After publishing a few books on the subject, Noë said, “something remarkable and completely unexpected happened. I started getting contacted by artists.”

He learned that ideas he had been pondering as a philosopher appealed strongly to artists, especially dancers and choreographers. It makes sense, Noë said: “There’s a tradition in our scientific and philosophical culture of thinking that the mind is interior, and the body is exterior and part of the material world. The view I was urging is, ‘No, actually, experience itself is this dynamic of involvement between the organism and the organism’s environment.’ ”


The ensuing conversations Noë had with artists led him to his latest book, “Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature,” which challenges the notion that science, with its singular focus, is capable of explaining why art is important to us. Instead “art can actually help neuroscience frame a better conception of ourselves,” he said.

That’s because art, Noë believes, is less about any individual object or performance than about the dynamic encounter between a person and a work of art.

“One thing I’m interested in is the idea that so much of our living is habitual and organized,” Noë said. “One of the things that I think art does is disrupt those organized ideas; it disrupts the way we look; it disrupts the way we see; it disrupts the way we think. And in doing that, it lets us start to talk and think and look and see and be different.”

Encounters with art don’t require museum visits, Noë pointed out, though they are wonderful, just as spirituality doesn’t only happen in a church. And, he added, “it doesn’t depend on being a connoisseur or expert. It simply depends on being willing to look and look again.”


Noë will read 7 p.m. Thursday at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.