Beauty & the Brain Revealed

Arts and Brain1
Back in 2010, I and 3,000 of my fellow museum-goers participated in an exhibit/experiment at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (and I wrote about it for this blog). Last week, I learned the results of the research during a tour of the AAAS gallery in Washington, DC, and got the chance to do the experiment again. And so can you.

Gary Vikan, former director of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum and self-described “neuroscience junkie,” walked us through the exhibit this past Thursday, just before he took part in the panel discussion “The Arts and the Brain” upstairs (see our recap). As a museum programmer, he continually sought ways to make art viewers more active participants in the experience. When he met Ed Connor of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University and learned of his work on shape preference in vision, Vikan saw a way to bring science into the world of art, too.

Connor’s work could be seen as an exploration of the aesthetic theory of “significant form,” which includes the idea that certain aesthetic experiences are the same, independent of time, place, history, or culture. For example, are some aspects of shape universal? Do artists take advantage of our pre-programmed expectations when they design shapes they intend to be pleasing or startling?


“We could take a museum aesthetic concept, which was new to Ed, and this neuroscientific concept, which was new to me,” Vikan said, and make an exhibit and an experiment at the same time, inviting the audience to join in the scientific process.

Connor created an array of 3-D digital shapes, some of which were based on computer scans of sculpture by Jean (Hans) Arp (see image in previous post). Each shape was “blobbed up” or “spiked out” to greater and lesser degrees. At the Walters in 2010, we donned 3-D glasses and looked at posters of the shapes in ten blocks of 25, marking the one we liked best and the one we liked least. In the lab, college students looked at dozens more and gave their preferences; some students also went into the fMRI, where researchers could match their brain activity to stated preference. Connor’s lab also had performed a similar shape-preference experiments with macaque monkeys.

What did they find in all this data? We are, indeed, a lot alike, at least in our preferences: “The data converged both in dislike and like,” Vikan told us. “The people who came to the museum liked and disliked the same type of shapes as the people in the lab and the people in the imaging machine. It was amazing how tight the clustering was—it was like art.” Most of us prefer shallow deformations and rounded shapes.

Arts and Brain2
In the AAAS gallery is a repeat of the experiment, with a new response sheet. Now viewers can mark their preferences and score themselves, seeing where their answers fall on the preferred and not-preferred grids at the bottom of the page. When I did it again on Thursday, I found I match the average strongly on likes, and weakly but still clearly on dislikes.

Try it yourself: The AAAS gallery, at its headquarters at 1200 New York Avenue in Washington, DC, is open Monday through Friday from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission is free. The exhibit closes on Jan. 3, 2014.

“My goal was to have an exhibition and an experiment at the same time,” Vikan said. He hopes more museums and researchers will collaborate to build a busy “intersection of the public and science in this area.”

The “Arts and the Brain” panel was part of the Neuroscience and Society series, a partnership between the Dana Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A video of the session is available on dana.org. Videos of previous sessions include: The Adolescent BrainNeuroscience and the Law; The Aging Brain: What’s New in Brain Research, Treatment, and Policy; and Neuroenhancement: Building an Improved Body and Mind.

–Nicky Penttila

One response

  1. Pingback: Art and the Brain - Nicky Penttila

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