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Beauty and the Brain
28 Nov, 2007 11:24 am
What makes a work of art beautiful?
When people judge the beauty of a piece of sculpture, for example, are they simply expressing a personal opinion conditioned by their own experiences and personality, or are they responding to something intrinsic to the artwork that evokes the same response in all viewers? A recent brain imaging study indicates that the answer is: A little of both.
Italian researchers used fMRI to examine the brains of volunteers who were viewing images of classical and Renaissance art. Some images were true to the originals, while others had been tweaked a bit so that they no longer conformed to the golden ratio, a proportion long believed to be aesthetically appealing. The study revealed that when participants simply viewed the images, the original images sparked more brain activity in specific areas, including the insula (a brain structure that mediates emotional responses), than the manipulated images. However, when the participants rated the sculptures as beautiful or ugly, the right amygdala (an important emotional center in the brain) was active when they were viewing the beautiful ones.
This indicates that there are two distinct but not mutually exclusive processes at work in determining our response to art, giving rise to an objective evaluation based on the properties of the art itself, and a subjective evaluation based on personal experience. This story from Science Daily has more information, and if you really want to get into the details, here’s the original paper in PLoS One, one of the Public Library of Science open access journals.
A related story is this one from the Telegraph about a professor who’s studying neuroaesthetics, the ways that art interacts with our brain and trips our neural triggers. (He found, by the way, that when a viewer looked at paintings he or she registered as beautiful, there was more activity in the orbito-frontal cortex.)
Originally published on: The Thinking Meat Project