Neuroaesthetics: How the Brain Responds to Art
Neuroaesthetics is an emerging interdisciplinary field combining neuroscience, psychology and the arts to understand the neural correlates of aesthetic experiences such as art and beauty (Pearce et al., 2016). Neuroaesthetics was first coined by Semir Zeki, a professor of neuroscience at University College London, who describes artists as neuroscientists in disguise, exploring the potential and capacity of the brain through employing different creative techniques (Zeki, 2001). He proposed two laws concerning the way in which artists may subconsciously utilise the mechanisms of the visual brain: constancy and abstraction.
Constancy refers to the function of the visual brain in “seek[ing] knowledge of the constant and essential properties of objects”; knowledge concerning the consistencies of the visual phenomenon is retained whilst dynamic properties are filtered out. Similarly, the process of painting an established subject matter involves filtering out details which are not recognised as consistencies to produce a static representation, differing from what is perceived directly by the eyes in motion. As opposed to deconstructing the image, the brain engages with the idea and feeling of the subject matter captured by the artwork. Observed phenomena do not exist outside of the brain and are perceived only in relation to existing beliefs and concepts; artists only need to capture the essence of the object by depicting its consistent features. An example of this is the recognition of faces from different angles, where the perception of the main consistencies of facial features, such as general shape and location, can produce the idea of a face despite excluding other details.
Abstraction defines the process of forming established categories called ‘abstractions’ through inductively collecting similarities and patterns in constituent data. Therefore, such generalisations can be applied to particular instances in a deductive manner, allowing the brain to process visual stimuli such as artwork. Basic abstractions include colour and shape , which are used to develop subjective, semantic abstractions such as the ideas associated with such sensory perceptions (Aviv, 2014). Artists can convey or challenge these abstractions to evoke certain feelings in those who experience the artwork. The detailed mechanism defining the relationship between abstract art and the brain is not as known to neuroscience, as is the difference between the underlying mechanisms of the perception of abstract and representational art.
Associated brain regions
The neural basis of how art is perceived and experienced has been studied through employing various neuroimaging techniques, notably fMRI scans. Aesthetic experiences heavily rely on processing within the visual centres such as the V1 cortex; activity within this area is regulated by perceptual context, displaying correlation with aspects of visual awareness, attention and perceptual organisation (Lamme et al., 2000). In addition, the visual brain consists of several processing pathways specialising in factors such as colour or shape (Cela-Conde et al., 2004).
A study by Kawabata and Zeki (2004) using fMRI scans found that the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC) was strongly activated across all participants when a painting was perceived as beautiful. A significantly lower activation level of the OFC was observed when the painting was seen as ugly, and an intermediate activation level was produced when the painting was viewed as neutral. Emotions play a large role in the experience of aesthetic stimuli due to the personal and subjective nature of perception. When asked to review artwork subjectively, as opposed to passively observing, participants displayed significantly high activation in the bilateral insula, attributed to its role in emotional regulation and expression (Cupchik, 2009). This may demonstrate the application of empathy and personal engagement when interpreting the meaning of an artwork. However, such inferences cannot be made from observing brain activity alone.
Neuroaesthetics is a unique field aspiring to determine the neural correlates of what are deemed to be some of the most fundamental yet inexplicable features of our human experience. Zeki hopes that the neural basis of “creativity and achievement” and “religious belief” will be uncovered, as well as “the relation between morality, jurisprudence, and brain function” (Zeki, 2001). The contemplation of our most personal, subjective experiences drives the uncertainty of the extent to which they are based upon unique neural mechanisms attributed to our life experiences, as opposed to possessing a universal neural basis: a question that neuroaesthetics seeks to answer.
Watch to learn - Semir Zeki on Neuroaesthetics
Aviv, V. (2014). What does the brain tell us about abstract art? Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 85.
Cela-Conde, C. J., Marty, G., Maestú, F., Ortiz, T., Munar, E., Fernández, A., Roca, M., Rosselló, J., & Quesney, F. (2004). Activation of the prefrontal cortex in the human visual aesthetic perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(16), 6321–6325. :10.1073/pnas.0401427101
Cupchik, G. C. (2009). Viewing artworks: Contributions of cognitive control and perceptual facilitation to aesthetic experience. Brain and Cognition, 70(1), 84–91. :10.1016/j.bandc.2009.01.003
Kawabata, H. & Zeki, S. (2004). Neural correlates of beauty. Journal of Neurophysiology, 91(4), 1699–1705. :10.1152/jn.00696.2003
Lamme, V.A., Supèr, H., Landman, R., Roelfsema, P.R. & Spekreijse, H. (2000). The role of primary visual cortex (V1) in visual awareness. Vision Research, 40(10-12), 1507-1521.
Pearce, M.T., Zaidel, D.W., Vartanian, O., Skov, M., Leder, H., Chatterjee, A. & Nadal, M. (2016). Neuroaesthetics: The cognitive neuroscience of aesthetic experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(2), 265-279.
Zeki, S. (2001). Artistic creativity and the brain. Science. 293(5527), 51–52.