This Is Your Brain on Art!

What is good art? What qualities make art beautiful? Should “beautiful” be a qualifying factor? How do I even know what is good? These are some of the questions I encounter when talking to people who are thinking about buying art for the first time. My response is always the same, “What do you like?”, and/or “What makes you feel good?” I have always thought that the gut, “feel good response” to any particular piece of art should be your guide. Formal art education and theories of esthetics aside, I have always felt very deeply that art appreciation needs to be an intensely personal endeavor. Anyone interested in art needs to cultivate an attitude of trust, not with current outside tastes and theories, but with our own, internal senses and responses. And so I am thrilled to read about Neuroscientist Semir Zeki’s study, “Toward a Brain Based Theory of Beauty”.

Semir Zeki, a Neuroscientist who heads the Laboratory of Neurobiology at University College London, and who founded the Institute for Neuroesthetics in 2001, has used the latest MRI technology to actually measure brain activity in subjects looking at fine art in real time. What he has found should not actually be so surprising to those who are involved with art, but the fact that we now have “scientific proof” that the “feel good response” to your chosen beloved pieces of art is in fact, a biological reality, is cause for celebration! Notice that the title of his study talks about Beauty, and that the art is the medium through which we experience beauty. In his experiment, Zeki was interested in showing that our brains respond to what we individually perceive as beauty, be it visual (fine art, paintings) or auditory (music). In other words, to show that our brains are wired for beauty.

In his introduction to the study Zeki states:

“in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, (Edmund) Burke wrote that “Beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses” [1]. That definition suggests that there is a unique faculty of beauty that can be stimulated by any and all the senses. It thus raises an important question: would the experience of beauty derived from different senses, say the visual and auditory, correlate with activity in the same or different brain areas? If the latter, then the clear implication would be that brain systems that correlate with the experience of beauty are functionally specialized, the experience of visual beauty correlating with activity in one area or set of areas and that of auditory beauty correlating with another. But our reading of the relevant humanistic literature, too numerous to mention, suggests that the first alternative has been more favored by those who have discoursed on the subject, namely that there is a single faculty of beauty into which different senses feed. This alternative is reflected in Burke's definition.”

In describing his experiment, Zeki states:

“We undertook a human brain imaging experiment, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), in which we asked subjects to view pictures of paintings and listen to brief musical excerpts and rate them according to how beautiful they seemed, while we imaged the activity in their brains. As a working hypothesis, we inclined more towards our neurobiological understanding of Burke's definition and supposed that there would be a single area or set of areas whose activity would correlate with the experience of beauty, regardless of whether it was derived from an auditory or visual source.”

To illustrate the point of our individuality determining our own internal sense of beauty, Semir said this in his 2012 TED Talk, “The Neurology of Beauty”:

“In the philosophical literature of aesthetics, people always speak of beauty in the abstract. They talk about beauty derived from music, poetry, painting. I talk about beauty derived from portrait or landscape painting, or, in terms of music, derived from jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, or Beethoven. In our studies, we found that whenever subjects experienced beauty, regardless of whether it was from a musical or visual source, the experience always correlated with activity in the mOFC. In that sense, there is an abstract quality to beauty in that it doesn’t have to be tied to any particular medium. If you experience a face or a vase as beautiful, you will get activity in the mOFC.”

(medial orbitofrontal cortex)

In the discussion section of the study, Professor Zeki points out that this experiment is the first to show that a particular and defined section of the brain, the “Field A1 of the mOFC” is purely associated with desire, pleasure, and reward. Also that the amount of response, compared to earlier studies, equalled the strongest feelings of pleasure and reward, similar to the feeling of being in love. It is important to note as well, that the physiological experience of beauty can be measured as a response to something. He notes in his conclusion that whether or not an object is considered to be art or not is simply beside the point:

“But any work, be it considered art or not, may be subjectively experienced as being beautiful by an individual. This leads us to divorce art from beauty in this discussion and concentrate on beauty alone. In our study, we were essentially indifferent to whether a stimulus, be it visual or auditory, constituted a work of art, our only concern being with whether the individual subject, in the scanner, experienced the work as being beautiful or not.”

Also in his conclusion, Professor Zeki talks about the way in which art historians have concentrated on searching for commonalities of form between art objects themselves, instead of the individual perception that happens individually, in order to form aesthetic theories of beauty. Zeki’s work pulls away from those assumptions by singling out the physiological response to what is individually perceived as beauty, no matter what form the stimulus takes.

Perhaps as art enthusiasts we did not need a lab study to tell us that “art or beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, but somehow, doesn’t having the “men in white coats” give credence to something that we so desire in our hearts, just plain make us feel better? To me personally, this study is significant in that we can go out with confidence, knowing that no other person or institution can declare to us what is beautiful, what is pleasurable, and what is valuable, in terms of art.

Also, the fact our brains are essentially “wired for beauty” is significant in showing us that experiencing beauty in our lives is not only NOT frivolous, but actually important, and could actually help us with healing from any number of ailments. Feeling down? Lacking that dopamine rush? Grab a friend, get out, go to a museum, gallery or show, and let the fireworks begin!



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