Locating art in the brain of the beholder


New books by Anjan Chatterjee and Arthur Shimamura tackle neuroaesthetics, the search for links between brain activity and preferences for art:

WHO is your favourite artist? You may, find the question difficult to answer. Preferences vary, and you may like different artists for different reasons: Paul Klee, Anish Kapoor, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet…

Whatever your own answer, it is bound to differ from mine or anyone else’s. That’s one of the beautiful things about art – everybody interprets and experiences it differently.

But why? Aesthetic preference is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ways in which humans differ from one another. Many differences are largely a product of culture and environment – musical taste, for example. But basic biology also plays a role, as research into areas such as personality, intelligence and food preferences has started to reveal. Now visual aesthetic preferences are coming under the same microscope.

How much can we understand about art preferences? Two new books try to answer that question, with a focus on neuroaesthetics – the application of neuroscience to art appreciation.

The basic premise of neuroaesthetics is that by using imaging techniques to see which parts of the brain are activated when viewing art, we can get a handle on the cognitive processes involved. It is a young discipline and has its limitations. Brain imaging in general is under a cloud at the moment (see “Hidden depths”). And even if we do know which parts of the brain are activated when we look at something, that does not tell us why.

Nonetheless, neuroaesthetics has produced insights that go beyond what traditional aesthetics has to offer (New Scientist, 14 July 2012, p 42).

In The Aesthetic Brain, Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, attempts to explain our preferences by combining brain imaging with evolutionary psychology, which accounts for human behaviour by appealing to our evolutionary history.

It’s an ambitious endeavour, as Chatterjee acknowledges. His route through it is to explore the concept of beauty, link it to pleasure and then apply this to art. The outcome is a hypothesis of art appreciation that focuses mainly on sex and food.

The opening section on beauty covers some familiar territory – our preference for symmetry in faces and bodies, for example, and mathematical patterns that appear often in nature, the golden ratio and the Fibonacci series.

From this starting point, Chatterjee goes on to argue that we find things beautiful because they activate the reward system in the brain. This, he says, evolved to motivate us to pursue basic needs – which is where sex and food come in – but is also turned on by some higher-minded things such as mathematical patterns and learning. When we see something that appeals to these basic drives, we feel pleasure. Sometimes art does the appealing. We also experience pleasure through figuring something out – a piece of conceptual art, for example.

Interesting enough, but it does not add up to a theory of art preference. In fact, Chatterjee pulls back from offering one, acknowledging that objective science may never be able to explain something so subjective as aesthetic individuality.

The book has other drawbacks. It contains an unresolved tension between an explicit assertion that aesthetics and art are not inextricably intertwined and an implicit message that they are. And it is not until well over half way through that Chatterjee defines aesthetics – as the “continuum of beauty to ugly” – and broaches the subject of art.

This slowly-slowly approach makes the early chapters feel directionless. And sometimes Chatterjee’s focus seems less a dispassionate look at aesthetics and more a foray into his own personal preferences. This, combined with an uncritical approach to evolutionary psychology as an explanatory principle for behaviour results in an unsatisfying approach to the complex processes of art appreciation.

To be fair, Chatterjee begins to bring in a broader perspective by calling upon the work of neuroscientist Arthur Shimamura of the University of California, Berkeley, the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship to study the connection between art, mind and brain.

Those who are interested in Shimamura’s work, however, might as well get it from the horse’s mouth via his eclectic and excellent book Experiencing Art.

After a potted history of art theory – which is generally good but loses nuance in the shortening – Shimamura sets out his theory on art appreciation in the visual arts: the I-SKE model. This considers how the intentions (I) of the artist are interpreted by the beholder on three levels, sensations, knowledge and emotions (SKE). Consuming art is not merely a perceptual experience: we view it through a lens of culture, individual experience and what we know of the artist. The overall experience is more than the sum of its parts.

Experiencing Art is a compelling and well-argued exposition of this framework, with Shimamura detailing the various neural processes that underlie the experience of art and ranging beyond neuroaesthetics to consider the physics of light, the biology of the eye and cultural symbolism and politics.

The book is peppered with examples of art to illustrate each point. Pieter Janssens Elinga’s Woman Reading (see below), for example, is used to demonstrate the effect of a bias in the way we view, and hence interpret, a scene. Westerners tend to scan pictures from the left, so put more emphasis on the objects there. In Elinga’s original orientation, the first thing to catch the eye is the woman reading, but if the image is reversed, the eyes first hit a pair of shoes, leading to a very different aesthetic experience.

Shimamura also documents the mutual enrichment of science and art through history, from how Euclid’s work on light informed renaissance depictions of perspective, to artistic movements such as cubism, which led to new insights into visual perception.

Ultimately, for Shimamura, personal tastes are built from a combination of human universals – a liking for symmetry in faces and a preference for blues over dark browns and yellows, for example – with our own personal knowledge and experience.



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