When it comes to art, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but some scientists now are looking for it in bursts of brain waves.
Seeking a biological basis for our response to art, researchers from the University of Houston recorded the electrical brain activity from 431 gallery visitors last year as they explored an exhibit of works by conceptual artist Dario Robleto at the Menil Collection, near downtown Houston. In the low-voltage sizzle of so much neural buzz, the scientists are trying to find how our brains mix sensory impressions of color, texture and shape with memory, meaning, and emotion into an aesthetic judgment of artworks that, at their best, can be both universal and intensely personal.
“This is about emotion, about brain patterns, about individuality,” said university computer engineer Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, who is conducting the research funded by the National Science Foundation. “We don’t know the neural basis for art. The hope is that there will be a common element.”
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His brain wave experiments, conducted at three Houston museums over the past year or so, are part of a growing scientific exploration of the human preoccupation with art, with potential implications for worldlier endeavors. Experts say our aesthetic judgments go well beyond paintings and sculpture to influence whom we find attractive, which designs and products we prefer and how we respond to abstract communications such as music or mathematics.
“It is one critical aspect of how people make choices,” said Anjan Chatterjee, a University of Pennsylvania neurologist and author of “The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art,” who studies how brain damage has affected working artists. “It is mysterious as to why it is such a big part of our lives.”
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As an art critic, the brain is quick to judge. Shown an artwork for the first time, be it a landscape painting, a portrait or an abstract rendering of almost any style, people usually make a snap judgment of its aesthetic appeal. Brain-wave recordings suggest that the neural calculation takes 200 to 330 milliseconds, about as long as a photo flash.
“You experience the appeal of art, and you know right away whether you like it or not,” said Dr. Contreras-Vidal.
Gazing at Van Gogh’s dynamic swirling brush strokes evokes a sense of movement that activates portions of the brain’s visual motor cortex, according to brain scanning experiments conducted in 2012 at Boston College. In a similar way, a portrait activates the part of the fusiform gyrus area in the brain that is responsive to faces; the prettier the face in the portrait, the stronger the neural response. A landscape painting usually activates a portion of the parahippocampal gryus associated with places, according to a 2007 brain imaging study at the University of Southern California and New York University.
Art can stir emotions at the level of synapses. The “delicate sadness” of a mask used in traditional Japanese Noh theater activates the right amygdala, a small, almond-shaped brain structure associated with fear, sadness and other negative emotions, researchers at Kyoto University in Japan recently discovered. The pleasure at viewing a beautiful object appears to trigger the brain’s reward center.
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The most powerfully engaging works of art appeared to trigger brain regions in the frontal cortex that are involved in introspective thought, as well as nearby regions usually directed at more outward matters. The two areas usually don’t activate simultaneously. “That is a very rare state,” Dr. Vessel said. “It resonates in the shape of your mind.”
PG thinks there may be implications for cover design and advertising in this research.