[25 October 2010 — see update at bottom]
On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, I joined a couple dozen people participating in an experiment in neuroaesthetics, helping researchers try to take a reading on what art does to our brains.
The exhibit/experiment “Beauty and the Brain: A Neural Approach to Aesthetics” at the Walters Art Museum is a collaboration between the museum and the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University. As part of a series of experiments, Institute researchers are collecting nearly three months’ worth of museumgoer experiences and compare them with the reactions of a far smaller number of subjects on campus viewing similar shapes while they are in an fMRI brain scanner.
Outside the single gray-walled room stood a sculpture by Jean Arp, “The Woman of Delos,” finished in 1959. Inside, the two long walls each held five posters containing 25 computer-generated modifications of the work, stretching it, compressing it, re-orienting it, and taking a slice out of it.
As we entered the exhibit, we picked up 3-D glasses, pencils, a score sheet, and directions: “Look at the arrays (picture groups), fill out the answer sheet and leave your response for the scientists to analyze.” For each array, we circled the dot corresponding to the position of the shape on the poster we found "most pleasing" and marked an X over the dot for the shape we found "least pleasing." I filled in my age and gender, and set off. With me were about 15 other “research subjects,” ranging from middle-school age to retired folks.
The directions said to stand a foot or so away from the images; younger people often stood much closer, older people a little farther away. Sometimes I needed to move forward or back or side-to-side to see the 3-D effect.
Some of the images looked to me like misshapen clown-faces, others (as in the photo) were sloping shapes a little too reminiscent of all the snow I’d been shoveling this winter. Some images seemed to be reaching out to embrace me in soft, bulbous arms; others, with sharper edges, looked more likely to slice me. Guess which ones I preferred.
The distinctions are so small, the images so similar, I had a hard time discriminating among them, and the longer I took the harder it became to decide which I truly preferred. Most of the time, I ended up choosing extremes, usually an image along the edge of the frame.
The researchers hypothesize that our basic three-dimensional shape preferences are determined in part by neuronal responses in visual regions of the brain; by collecting and aggregating a large number of responses, perhaps they hope to find the limits of our sense of aesthetic pleasure. I like the idea that artists are “intuitive neuroscientists,” as Walters director Gary Vikan puts it, but I’m not sure how much this testing will expand our knowledge.
For example, would I have answered differently if I had not seen the actual piece just before I saw all its modifications? Even as a sometime art-goer, I know that Arp pieces usually are rounded and robust; if I hadn’t known that would my choices have changed? Just before my exhibit-going, I had enjoyed a brunch with friends and was in a good mood; if I had been in a different mood, say, angry, would the “pointier” pieces have appealed to me more? My companion, who had not been to the brunch, found more flaws than I did with the experimental procedure (and liked the pointy ones better, too).
Also, I prefer to view this Arp piece from the back, and follow the line making up its “shoulder” as it flows to form the front. I couldn’t tell for sure, but there seemed to be no views from that angle. The images on the posters were 3-D, but only from one angle; our experience is surely different as we walk around a sculpture.
On the other hand, I’m willing to be proven wrong, and the exhibit did pull a swath of non-scientists into the curious mode of scientific experimenters. What a great way to introduce neuroscience and something like the scientific method to the general public. I’ll keep an eye out for results of this research and others in the series, and, I expect, so will some of the others whose responses filled the “answer box” at the end of the day.
Try it yourself: "Beauty and the Brain" runs through April 11 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays; admission is free.
UPDATE: (25 Oct 2010), Dr. Ed Connor of the Mind/Brain Institute gave us an update on this research during the "Science of Art" series in Baltimore last week. Based on the similarity of results from undergrads in brain scanners, primates, and museum-goers, most of us prefer the objects that are thicker, or "higher-volume."
There are lots of neurons "tuned" to surface curvature, he said, and taking away volume is taking away surface curvature. It may be that we seem to prefer pudgier shapes because "the lower-volume shapes stop providing a rich environment for this [visual] system that responds to surface curvature." He warned that this hypothesis is "very speculative," but "at least this is a start on 'why are some things aesthetic and and some things unaesthetic'," and some proof that methods like this can, indeed, tell us something.