Mar. 06, 2015

Beauty and the Brain: Understanding Our Responses to Art

by Stephanie Hughes

Click to enlarge images
Perhaps you’ve walked beside one of the giant, gently curving steel plates that make up a Richard Serra sculpture. Or maybe you’ve spent time gazing at one of Mark di Suvero’s angular, pick-up-stick arrangements of steel beams. Which of these artworks do you immediately prefer? Ed Connor, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, might be able to predict your answer. He’s interested in whether we intuitively favor certain shapes over others—and if so, what that could mean for how we experience art.
Connor's research is part of an emerging field called neuroaesthetics, which uses techniques of neuroscience to try to understand our response to art. “Our hope is that you can discover truly new things by analyzing the brain as an information processing system, just the way you would analyze a computer,” he explains.
A few years ago, Connor joined forces with Gary Vikan, then the director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (he’s now retired). Together their team set up a two-part experiment to measure how people respond to different surface curvatures in three-dimensional shapes—in this case, shapes adapted from sculptures by the artist Jean (also known as Hans) Arp. Arp’s pieces are abstract, with full, smooth lines. If a sculpture can seem weightless, Arp’s are buoyant.
Vikan and Connor thought that using non-representational art would help viewers form opinions about the artworks free of prejudice. “If you're talking about the Sistine [Chapel] ceiling, you’re talking about God,” says Vikan. “You get sidetracked on the subject matter. If you’re talking about Arp, it’s just a blob. And Arp made better blobs than some people make.”
First, Connor’s team scanned images of Arp’s sculptures. Next, graduate student Neeraja Balachander used software that she developed to gradually alter the surface curvatures of each piece from full-bodied and rounded, to elongated and pointier. Then, study subjects donning 3-D glasses viewed arrays of these altered shapes on a computer monitor, and clicked on the ones they preferred. The researchers found that the majority of participants stated a preference for softly curving shapes as opposed to pointy and elongated ones.
In the second part of the experiment, another group of participants viewed the most noticeably modified Arp images while in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. The researchers found that when subjects looked at softly rounded forms, there was a stronger neural response in the higher-level visual cortex, which contains regions that register shape. (The findings haven’t been published yet.)
Connor isn’t exactly sure why the soft curves elicited these stronger responses, but he says that living organisms tend to have these kinds of lines, and it’s possible that humans have evolved to favor that sort of shape as a result. “It makes sense for finding mates, finding good things to eat,” he says. For instance, “you are going to eat the grape with the nice curved surface, not the shriveled one that’s not ripe.”
Taking a neuroaesthetic approach to art, however, isn’t without controversy. Alva Noë is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of a forthcoming book that discusses neurobiological approaches to art. He says that in emphasizing preference, neuroaesthetics simplifies our response to art. Such an approach leaves out more complicated feelings that art might compel in us. “That verb ‘to like’ is really broad and encompasses almost everything,” says Noë. For instance, consider your reaction to various films you’ve seen. “It can be true [that] I liked the movie even though I spent the entire time wanting to leave because it was so upsetting,” he says. “‘Liking’ sort of under-describes how we evaluate and respond to art.”
Connor acknowledges that a preference for certain shapes over others is only one part of our response to art. He cites Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, whose long, thin, and pointy sculptures are also extremely popular. “Most of what we call aesthetics is forever beyond the reach of neuroscientific explanation, because it's simply too high-level,” Connor says. “It draws on history and biography and art criticism.”
Vikan adds that it’s helpful for museum directors to know more about what’s happening to people neurologically as they view art. “We’re in the experience business, sort of like Disney is in the experience business,” he says. “To the extent we understand how that experience works, we’re better at it.”
And neuroaesthetic research can inspire artists, too. For instance, William Stoehr paints large-scale compositions of women’s faces and has been working on a project related to war and violence. Knowing from Connor’s research that rounded shapes seem to be more pleasing to viewers, Stoehr decided to use hard-edged lines to evoke faces that have witnessed or experienced violence. The visages that appear in paintings such as “No More Words #1” and “No More Words #2” appear starved and horrified.
Connor and Vikan hope to continue their research and examine how the brain experiences such three-dimensional shapes as architectural spaces. “Whether you’re designing a hospital, or a prison, or a place for people with mental issues, having an environment that’s conducive to a sense of peace and culture is common sense," says Vikan. “It’s one thing to know about significant form in a little piece of sculpture. It’s another thing to have it in a hospital.”
Connor says that while neuroscience may only be one part of the overall aesthetic experience, it’s a piece people love learning about. “There is a growing realization in the world that understanding the brain is increasingly a big part of understanding yourself,” he says. “Everything that you know and remember and believe and want and fear—all of that’s based on the brain.”
About Stephanie Hughes

Stephanie Hughes is a producer with Bloomberg Radio. She's also contributed to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's The Takeaway, and Salon, among others. Follow her @stephanie_h

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.
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