Arts and the Mind: Neuroaesthetics

Does it matter if art is beautiful? Does interpretation depend on taste and culture? These are some of the questions tackled by panelists at a recent World Science Festival event, “Sunday at the Met: Arts and the Mind.” The topic was the emerging and increasingly interdisciplinary field of neuroaesthetics. Moderated by Cooper Union president and cognitive neuroscientist Jamshed Bharucha, experts in a variety of fields came together for the discussion:

Luke Syson, art curator at the Met, questioned how taste varies according to cultural upbringing and the environment where a work is situated. He pointed out that aesthetic responses to the man-made and natural world differ and that our “conscious awareness [of art] is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Neuroscientist Edward A. Vessel talked about how art produces specific behavioral reactions: sensory, semantic, and emotional. After conducting experiments using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), he identified parts of the prefrontal cortex that exhibited positive or negative responses based on whether the participant liked the artwork or not.  He eagerly mentioned that subcortical regions of the brain responded only when participants viewed artworks as deeply moving. In addition, stimulation of the default mode network, a brain system essential for “self-referential thoughts,” was evidence that art is perceived as “personally relevant” and is a powerful means of communication.

Art historian David Freedberg discussed emotional responses to art that depend on a neurosubstrate in the brain, a motor response to texture, composition, or gesture in an artwork that can lead to a strong desire to simulate the movement of the piece, regardless of socio-cultural background or taste. Working with a colleague who used transcranial magnetic stimulation, Freedberg found that observing gestures or movement in art (as seen in this work, for example) produced a significantly higher activation in participants’ brains than viewing those same movements in real life—biological evidence of art’s exceptional ability to move us.

In preparation for the discussion, Matthew Ritchie, a painter, sculptor, and digital artist, created complex diagrams of the panelists’ ideas that can be dragged and rearranged, resembling both neural connections in the brain and many of his sculptures (such as his 2010 piece, “The Morning Line”). He believes that abstract art is less directly relatable and harder to understand than realistic art because it doesn’t contain familiar forms from nature and everyday life; however, abstract art has universal meaning free of any socio-cultural perspective.

To learn more about the World Science Festival and events that took place, click here.

– Amanda Bastone

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