Why do we find art beautiful? It all comes down to fireworks in the brain
The fascinating science of neuroaesthetics is shedding new light on the human appreciation of art.
On a gloriously sunny day I found myself once again in the garden doing something l love – making art. I make cyanotypes, which involves using photosensitive chemicals to create images with stencils and the Sun. It’s like painting with sunlight and shadows. It was the original process used for copying certain kinds of sketches, and because it creates strikingly blue images it is why we call designs or plans “blueprints”.
My pleasure from creating the images is partly due to a sense of accomplishment and mastery, but also from the images themselves. In making my own works and also looking at the various pieces that I’ve collected from local art fairs over the years, I have found myself wondering how I, or anyone, derives pleasure from art. So, recently I went looking for the answer, and I found the beautiful science of neuroaesthetics.
Neuroaesthetics is a relatively young field of research which involves cognitive neuroscientists looking into the brain to figure out what happens when we make aesthetic assessments. Researchers use a brain imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging to see which brain areas light up when we view paintings that we consider beautiful.
Similar research has been done to understand the neuronal fireworks that occur when we look at inspiring sculptures, pleasing interiors, attractive faces and bodies, impressive dance, and even the beauty in mathematical formulas.
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But why do we find some art beautiful and other art ugly? Said differently, why do we give different aesthetic assessments to different things? According to neuroaesthetics research, it all comes down to the 'aesthetic triad'.
The first part of the aesthetic triad is sensory-motor. This involves perceiving things like colours, shapes, and movements. Movement in art has a particularly intriguing role in this. For example, if you see a painting of a movement, like of a man pulling his arm away after being bitten by a dog, your mirror neurons make you experience ‘embodied resonance'. You immediately empathise with the movement, so the part of your brain that controls your own movements lights up in response.
Second is emotion-valuation. This is how a piece of art makes you feel, and whether or not you appreciate or enjoy that feeling. The part of the brain related to pleasure is activated in response to something we find beautiful. This system can be affected in fascinating ways, as found by research using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Rather than taking pictures of the brain like an fMRI, TMS actually changes how the brain works in a tiny, non-invasive way.
If you use TMS on specific parts of the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain behind your forehead that is particularly important for decision-making, you suddenly like different kinds of art. This kind of tiny change leads to significant changes in aesthetic appreciation of faces, bodies, and artworks. For example, the specific placement of TMS electrodes has made people find abstract art less beautiful. Put the electrodes elsewhere, and people appreciate art depicting humans less, probably because it interferes with how the brain perceives symmetry in faces.
The third part of the aesthetic triad is meaning-knowledge. This has to do with how we can connect with a piece of art, what meaning we can create in it. Meaning doesn’t exist inside an artwork; it can only be created inside of us. That’s why art is deeply personal and divisive, because when two people see the same artwork, our perception can create vastly different experiences of meaning. If we find meaning, we often find pleasure.
We also get enjoyment from the knowledge of how something was made. For the cyanotypes that I create, a person viewing it will probably get far more enjoyment from the images once they know the scientific process that I use to create them. If you thought that I just printed or mass-produced them, your enjoyment of them would go down.
Now, informed by neuroaesthetics, the next time I am in my garden creating art I will cherish the process even more, enjoying the activation of the aesthetic triad in my brain as I admire the vivid blue Sun-made images.
Read more from Julia Shaw:
Dr Julia Shaw is a research associate at University College London and the co-host of the Bad People podcast on BBC Sounds. She is an expert on criminal psychology, and the author of three books, Bi: The hidden culture, history, and science of bisexuality, Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side and The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory.