Neuroesthetics: An Exploration of Aesthetic Appraisal in the Human Brain
As human beings, by simple virtue of existing in the world, we are in a constant state of aesthetic appraisal. We engage reality in a dialogue through the use of our senses, perceiving external stimuli and assigning values to each input (whether consciously or not) through a reward mechanism. Of particular interest is the way in which this mechanism is employed in the appreciation of visual art. Through the use of neuroimaging technology scientists are beginning to understand how the brain encounters and creates art. This study, known as neuroesthetics, sheds light on why art has been so prevalent and valued over the course of human history and raises questions concerning the nature and future of art.
Semir Zeki is the leader of the Institute of Neuroesthetics at University College London. He is credited as the founder of the field and leads the annual International Conference on Neuroesthetics at UC, Berkeley each year (1). Through his work as a neuroscientist, in particular his extensive exploration into the mechanisms of vision, he has opened a new area of study that fuses empirical aesthetics, art, and neuroscience. Zeki has exploited the windows into the brain afforded by advancements in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to identify the parts of the brain activated when making aesthetic judgments (1). His findings have sparked enthusiasm across many disciplines as the quest to understand humanity through art continues.
Art has been produced and valued by every culture and society since the beginning of time; it is a staple of the human experience. We have all been captivated at one point or another by an expressive piece of art or felt compelled to create art ourselves. Scientists are just now beginning to understand the human predisposition toward art appreciation. It is generally agreed that our propensity to judge stimuli on a basis of aesthetics is rooted in the evolution of the prefrontal cortex (4). Aesthetic perception in this region has kept us alive by “guiding us toward what we need to… survive and warning us to avoid danger” (2). For example, when we observe the aesthetic characteristics of a tiger, its vibrant colours and stripes direct and hold our attention, signaling the need to proceed with caution. This theory is transferable to our perception of art. We evaluate beauty in art with the same tools of the prefrontal cortex with which we evaluated the tiger, though the meaning of our evaluation will undoubtedly differ (4).
A natural extension of this evolutionary theory is the study of the brain’s reward mechanisms. Professor of communication Ann Marie Barry states, “what all aesthetic theories seem to have in common is the idea that pleasure from images (of whatever kind) is gained through the senses and leads to a feeling of euphoria” (2). Appreciating aesthetics typically results in a feeling of gratification. This feeling is the result of a number of cognitive processes. Barry proposes, “the achievement of visual meaning from visual inputs results in aesthetic pleasure simply for the sake of problem solving alone as everything comes together in a unified concept” (2). Neuroscientists V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein continue in this vein of thought, outlining some of the more detailed pleasure-producing processes in their article The Science of Art. They argue that the brain’s ability to dispel ambiguity through processes of grouping and binding in art (in particular, abstract art) results in rewarding sensations (3).
This reward mechanism employed by the brain in aesthetic judgments provides evidence that the visual system is directly connected to the limbic system, the seat of our emotions (2, 3). Due to this connection “we are inclined to make associations that engage other clusters of neurons because whole networks are activated when parts are tapped” (2). These “other clusters” might include the parts of our brain responsible for memory. This is where subjectivity is introduced in aesthetic appreciation. An individual’s specific experiences and memories and the corresponding emotional associations will inform each individual’s perception of an artwork. However, though art appreciation is a personal, subjective phenomenon, there exist observable patterns of aesthetic perception. It seems that the importance of symmetry and the golden ratio serve as common denominators of aesthetic evaluation. Objects or images that exhibit symmetry and/or the divine proportion (1:1.618) are generally more pleasing than those that do not (3).
After the brain appraises the aesthetic object through the reward mechanism the resulting judgment, like most neural pathways, is subjected to a series of reafferent loops. These loops connect various parts of the brain, each informing the others, in order to complete an aesthetic experience. Neuroscientist Luca Francesco Ticini of the Italian Society of Neuroesthetics gives an example of such a loop, stating, “persuasive external factors (social-cultural, for example) can cause an inhibition of the frontal lobes, making us less impartial in our aesthetic judgments. If it were demonstrated that socio-cultural influence deactivates the frontal lobes and thus modifies aesthetic judgment, we would understand, scientifically, how we come to re-evaluate more positively a work of art we do not like when it is placed in a context known to us (for example, when we realize who the artist is and that the artist is universally respected)” (5). In this way parts of the brain outside of the prefrontal cortex influence the way we judge a piece of art. Indeed, it seems that the perception of aesthetics is a function of myriad brain systems as opposed to a singular visual track.
Now that we have achieved a basic understanding of the brain’s mechanism of aesthetic perception it is necessary to discuss its implications, specifically those relating to the art world. First and foremost, the patterns across all human aesthetic perception allow art to be a means of communication. Tocini eloquently phrases this phenomenon in his essay, saying, “this common basis, before art, puts us on the same interpretive plane, allowing us to communicate – through art – profound impressions and emotions, which at times we would be unable to express in words” (5). Our commonalities (such as our love of symmetry discussed in the preceding paragraphs) allow us to bridge the gaps of subjectivity in art appreciation. Ann Marie Barry echoes Tocini and takes his argument a step further, declaring, “shared process, rather than shared experience, allows for communication and expanded understanding in both artist and perceiver. Because the neural circuitry by which the brain works is a common ground shared by all people, artists can manipulate neural structures to achieve desired effects, and these effects can then become… the formula of a particular emotion” (2). “It is for this reason,” states neuroesthetics pioneer Semir Zeki, “that the artist is in a sense, a neuroscientist, exploring the potentials and capacities of the brain, though with different tools” (6).
The artist’s new role as a communicative neuroscientist greatly empowers her. As an “enlightened” student of neurobiology aware of the brain’s aesthetic and limbic mechanisms she can manipulate her audience by artfully rendering the formula for certain emotional responses. She will be more precise and successful in expressing herself and communicating her ideas as she can tailor her art process to coincide with natural human aesthetic propensities. She is also capable of selecting against the formulas or laws of pleasure so as to induce discord in the mind of her audience. If her audience is unaware of neuroesthetics then she is especially able to influence them. If they are “enlightened,” however, then their aesthetic experience will be enhanced proportionally as they understand the neural basis of their experience of discord. Also, an informed audience will undergo a more personal aesthetic experience as they realize that, though patterns exist and though communication through art is possible, no two people will have the same experience or appreciation of an artwork due to the “ ‘cognitive stock’ brought to (their) encounter of the piece” (3).
This new art theory raises interesting questions concerning the future of art. Though it is evident that understanding the neurobiology of aesthetics enhances our appreciation and creation of art, is there a point whereby attempting to quantify art we ruin it? The answer is debatable, though I believe that the subjective aspects of the art process will always prevail; there will always be an aspect of mystery surrounding art as it is so personal and because it relies so heavily on an individual’s particular reality.
As scientists continue to understand and appreciate how the human being passes aesthetic judgment on traditional visual art (paintings and other two dimensional medias) they come closer to the scientific study of other medias. In a postmodern world where the human being is subject to a barrage of images that move and change constantly the push to understand how the brain perceives a series of aesthetic inputs intensifies. What happens when two medias are brought together? For example, when film combines sound and a moving image? It would be particularly interesting to study how two stimuli of conflicting pleasure rates are perceived as they simultaneously affect the brain.
In conclusion, neuroesthetics is the perfect union of two seemingly opposed human endeavors: science and art. It is a shining example of the importance of interdisciplinary work. In the modern age it has become more and more apparent that all knowledge is one and that different fields of study represent different ways to attain the same truth concerning our existence. This notion is physically manifested in the brain’s orchestration of the visual, limbic, and mnemonic systems during aesthetic appraisal.
In the same way that our memories inform our ideas of beauty, neuroscience informs our creation and appreciation of art. In the words of Semir Zeki, “it is only by understanding the neural laws that dictate human activity in all spheres - in law, morality, religion and even economics and politics, no less than in art - that we can ever hope to achieve a more proper understanding of the nature of man” (6).
1. “Neuroesthetics.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 12 Feb. 2009. 15 April 2009 <wikipedia.org>.
2. Barry, Ann Marie. “Perceptual Aesthetics: transcendent emotion, neurological image.” Visual Communication Quarterly 13.3 (2006): 134-151.
3. Ramachandran, V.S. and Hirstein, William. “The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 6.6-7 (1999): 15-51.
4. Camilo J. Cela-Conde, Gisèle Marty, Fernando Maestú, Tomás Ortiz, Enric Munar, Alberto Fernández, Miquel Roca, Rosselló, Felipe Quesney. “Activation of the prefrontal cortex in the human visual aesthetic perception.” PNAS 101.16 (2004): 6321-6325.
5. Ticini, Luca Francesco. “Neuroesthetics: a Step Toward the Comprehension of Human Creativity?” <www.neuroestetica.it/contents/Ticini_Licata_Arte&Scienza.pdf>
6. Zeki, Semir. “Statement on Neuroesthetics.” <http://neuroesthetics.org/statement-on-neuroesthetics.php>
Other items of interest related to neuroesthetics:
Esref Armagan is a Turkish painter who has been blind since birth. He is able to paint landscapes and even portraits that he has never actually “seen” (look at his portrait of Bill Clinton). His abilities speak to the brain’s ability to “see” without the use of the eyes. It seems that the brain is a visual organ in and of itself.
This is the website for the Association of Neuroesthetics in Berlin. It has interesting information on the fusion of art and science.
This is the homepage for Semir Zeki’s Institute of Neuroesthetics in London. It has a links to related gallery spaces and artists as well as a link to Prof. Zeki’s personal blog. He has some pretty interesting insights on all things neuroscience.