Researchers in the evolving field of neuroesthetics seek to determine what happens in the cerebral cortex when we see art—and, in the process, figure out what makes great works so mesmerizing.
Some questions never die. Since at least the time of Plato, philosophers, artists, art historians, and critics have all pondered the concept of esthetic pleasure. What is art? What is beauty? Artists have thumbed their noses at the idea by placing a urinal on a pedestal or canning and selling their own feces. In recent years, scientists have weighed in on the discussion, aiming to measure the brain’s response to paintings and sculpture in the hope of finding out what really turns us on when we’re looking at a masterpiece or even just scanning ads in a magazine.
Under the inexact rubric of neuroesthetics, researchers are measuring what happens in our brains when we’re confronted with the Mona Lisa, one of Michelangelo’s Slaves, or even a simple visual puzzle that asks us to tease out a dalmatian from a pattern of smudges and dots. Some experts believe we’re at the frontier of a brave new understanding of art; others say we’re still in the dark and will never be able to pin down what gives art its power.
“We know a great deal about cells’ physical responses—the way the prefrontal cortex evaluates emotional responses,” says David Freedberg, Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art at Columbia University and one of the few traditionally trained art historians to venture into this terrain. “We know much more now about the neural bases of short–term and long–term memory, what you recall and what you don’t recall when you look at a painting—about attention and what catches your eye in a painting. I am interested in defining what it is that stirs us up about works of art, and I think there’s great potential for the neurosciences to illuminate the understanding of art.
“But,” he adds, “I’ve never made the claim that this can tell us about beauty or that it will tell us what art is. I have no idea what art is.”
To understand the role of the brain in processing works of art, one must begin with the eyes. For a long time, scientists and others believed that we apprehend the world holistically—that the brain processes what we see in one take. It was Semir Zeki, a professor of neurobiology at University College London and a prime mover in the field of neuroesthetics, who discovered that more than one area in the brain is involved in the act of seeing. When he first began studying vision and the brain, in the late ’60s, “there was a vast area of the cortex which had hardly been touched upon, which used to be called the ‘visual–association cortex,’” he explains. “So I thought that was a good place for me to explore.
“What I did was to show that there are many visual areas of the brain and that different areas are specialized to process different attributes of the visual field—color, form, and motion, for instance. They are all separate areas.” Thus, if one looks at a painting that is primarily dependent on color, such as a Monet, “the color area is activated.” And if you look at kinetic sculpture, such as a work by Alexander Calder or George Rickey, Zeki claims, the motion area fires up.
The brain’s processing systems can be distinguished even further. “If people look at portrait paintings, the face area is activated,” Zeki says. “There’s a multiplicity of visual areas. Nobody knows how many&mdashsome people say a dozen, some two dozen—but everyone’s agreed each one is doing different things.”
There is also a time lag in our perception, according to Zeki. “We see color before we see motion by a hundredth of a millisecond, which is a very long time in neurobiological terms.”
Zeki and others have also discovered—by means of traditional question–and–response studies, MRIs, and other scientific measures, such as inserting fine wires into a laboratory animal’s cerebral cortex (Zeki began his work using primates)—that the neural mechanisms involved in the response to “beauty” are, not too surprisingly, similar to those involved in desire. “You can tell there is a common area of the brain which is active whenever you see something as beautiful, regardless of whether it’s a portrait or a landscape or a still life,” he says. “A very similar area is activated when you desire something.” Not love, Zeki is careful to add. Love seems to deactivate certain areas of the brain (perhaps the source of the adage that love is blind).
In his lectures and books, Zeki likes to draw on the example of Vermeer paintings, as well as on supposedly unfinished works by Cézanne and Michelangelo, such as the latter’s Rondanini Pietí in Milan’s Sforza Castle. He believes we find an unfinished work more esthetically satisfying because the brain is more involved in the task of completing it. “Let us suppose for the sake of argument that you’ve got 20 compartments in your brain that can handle a painting,” he says. “If you’ve got a highly finished painting, there can be only one interpretation, and that will fit into one compartment, but if you’ve got an unfinished painting or sculpture, you can project many concepts onto it.”
Ambiguity also plays a role, Zeki says. Take Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. “To some she’s a very sexy girl. To others she’s quite chaste. To some she looks suspicious. To others she’s welcoming. I think the genius of Vermeer is to distill all those possibilities into a single painting.
“The brain is rich in concepts,” he adds, “and people tend to project these concepts onto the world outside. What’s interesting is that they project them essentially onto the same figure.”
Zeki is now pursuing studies that attempt to determine how an individual’s evaluation of an artwork is influenced by context. “We’re giving people paintings to look at and saying, ‘This comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art,’ when in fact it does not, and asking how they rate them.” (The paintings were created in a laboratory.) Zeki also believes that finding a system for connoisseurship in the brain can’t be far off. “I have little doubt that we will find one, but I would not say that it is a ‘center.’” As with the different parts of the brain that respond to different visual stimuli—color, shape, motion—Zeki posits that those whose knowledge of art is exceptionally fine–tuned may possess areas that show greater activity than those of less sensitive viewers.
Among a younger generation of neuroscientists interested in responses to art is Edward A. Vessel, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Neural Science at New York University. “Zeki and his collaborators did a study in which they showed people paintings and had them rate them as beautiful, neutral, or ugly,” Vessel says. “He found that certain parts of the brain seem to correlate with people’s judgments of beautiful versus neutral.
“We wanted to go beyond that and try to understand a bit more about what is an esthetic experience,” Vessel continues. “We wanted to know what the role of emotions is, and our thought is that you can have an esthetic experience that isn’t just positive. For instance, you can look at Picasso’s Blue Period paintings and realize these are very sad, somber scenes, and yet you can report having a strong esthetic response to subjects that are not what we would consider positive.”
Vessel and his colleagues designed a study in which 16 subjects rated 109 paintings from the Catalog of Art Museum Images Online (camio.oclc.org). These works were not particularly well known, but the subjects were told that a museum was interested in acquiring them, and that the curators would like to have the subjects’ responses before reaching a decision. “Your job is to give your gut–level response based on how much you find the painting beautiful, compelling or powerful,” read Vessel’s instructions. “Note that the paintings may cover the entire range from ‘beautiful’ to ‘strange’ to even ‘ugly.’ Respond on the basis of how much this image ‘moves’ you.”
Vessel’s experiment entailed complicated tracking processes that monitored regions of the brain such as the left caudate and left collateral sulcus. It seemed to demonstrate that certain parts of the subjects’ brains showed greater activity—and those parts seem to be closely related to what scientists refer to as the “default–mode network”—areas reserved for internal monitoring. “That’s the place your brain goes to,” he says, “when you’re in your own world.”
Vessel thinks he may be seeing evidence of “the fact that external objects can grab us so strongly that they engage our internal thought processes in what we call an ‘esthetic reaction.’” And this goes beyond the mere expression of preference for, say, a blue dress rather than a red one. “This is more an inspiration than a proof,” he adds, “but one of the things we’re learning is that you really do have a lot of different elements to create this kind of experience.”
Other neuroscientists, however, are loath to venture into the area of neuroesthetics, although they have designed experiments that measure responses to works of art. Margaret S. Livingstone, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard University, describes herself as a “reductionist” who studies the optical system, trying to figure out what kinds of information cells in the brain are extracting from the world around us. Her research has demonstrated, for instance, that the way our eyes work creates the mystery behind the Mona Lisa’s smile.
“Her smile is very blurry,” Livingstone says. “And it turns out that you can see it best with your peripheral vision, but you can’t see it with your central vision because that’s the area reserved for fine detail. As you move your eyes around the painting, the mouth ends up in your peripheral vision or near your central vision or in your peripheral vision again, and her expression changes because of the spatial–filtering properties of your visual system. So that gives her a dynamic quality—her face changes.”
Pointillism, photomosaics (such as Chuck Close’s paintings), and Op art also play games with our vision. But linking that to esthetics is way down the road, Livingstone says. “The reason works of art give pleasure is they tap into something that’s common to a lot of people—and why is it common to a lot of people? There are biological reasons, there are deep psychological reasons, there are common cultural reasons. People who go to Berkeley tend to like blue and gold”—the University of California’s colors—”but do you call that art? When you get into esthetics, it’s such a complicated mix.”
Nonetheless, artists, curators, and academics have been taking note of developments in neuroscience. When Vessel showed his research to a group of artists, he reports, the reaction was largely enthusiastic. Kate Raudenbush, a sculptor and photographer, remarks, “We as artists can use that study as a jumping–off point to create better environments and more harmony in our existence. That’s what excites me the most. How can we harness this information and this proof and ask, ‘Why aren’t we making our city planning more harmonious? Why are we building ugly buildings?’”
Zeki, who was a good friend of the painter Balthus and wrote a book about their conversations on art (Balthus, ou, La quéte de l’essentiel, 1995), says that the artist was at first hostile to many of his ideas about the way the brain processes visual information but then came to agree with some. However, he concedes, art critics are skeptical of neuroesthetics. “They don’t seem to realize that neuroesthetics has nothing to teach art historians or artists, but that we have a great deal to learn from them. All major artists are instinctive neuroscientists.”
Freedberg—who has published numerous papers in conjunction with neuroscientists and contributed to the debate with his 1989 book The Power of Images, a study of emotional responses to art—has encountered a fair amount of suspicion from those he calls “postmodern humanists.”
“The fear is that scientists will reduce the mystery of creativity to its basic elements,” he says. But “if there’s any potential for renewed ways of appreciating art, then it may well come from the adoption of certain aspects of the new neuroscientific understanding of the relation between vision, movement, and emotion.”
At least one museum is bringing this interface to the public at large. Beginning on the 23rd of this month, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore will present “Beauty and the Brain: A Neural Approach to Aesthetics” (through April 11), a show designed in collaboration with the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “The exhibition is really a public version of experiments we’re doing in the lab,” says Charles E. Connor, director of the institute. “The prediction for neuroesthetics would be that certain patterns of activity, certain ensembles of neurons, are for some reason more pleasing to people and some are less, and by knowing what neurons respond to, we might be able to understand something about the mapping between esthetic value and responses in the brain.”
At the Walters, visitors will be able to participate in experiments that measure human responses to sculptural shapes. In one, they will be asked to look at multiple “iterations,” or manipulated photos, of a 1959 sculpture by Jean Arp and choose the one they find most satisfying (the sculpture, The Woman of Delos, will be on display elsewhere in the museum). “There is no right answer,” says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters. “We’re puzzling out in the museum why some things look better than others, independent of their iconography or their condition or even their size or color.”
Vikan, who has been interested in esthetics since his college days, notes that Albert Barnes, the founder of the Barnes Foundation, was inspired by his mentor, the philosopher John Dewey, to place a Renoir nude, metalwork from an Amish barn, and a chair made by an Ohio factory in close proximity, in order to tease out the formal similarities that made them all pleasing to the eye.
The Walters experiment, Vikan hopes, will continue that investigation, but in a more controlled and scientific way. His ultimate goal—and that of the neuroestheticians in general—is to prove that “the brain on art is the brain operating on all cylinders.
“When you’re tying your shoes, the brain does some interesting things,” he adds, “but in creating a work of art, or re–creating it esthetically as an observer, you are engaging in a very complex, interesting, and distinctively—so far as we know—human phenomenon.”
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.