They hope to discover how our brains combine sensory impressions with memory and emotion to form judgments
by Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal
December 7, 2015
When it comes to art, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but some scientists now are looking for it in bursts of brain waves.
Seeking a biological basis for our response to art, researchers from the University of Houston recorded the electrical brain activity from 431 gallery visitors last year as they explored an exhibit of works by conceptual artist Dario Robleto at the Menil Collection, near downtown Houston. In the low-voltage sizzle of so much neural buzz, the scientists are trying to find how our brains mix sensory impressions of color, texture and shape with memory, meaning, and emotion into an aesthetic judgment of artworks that, at their best, can be both universal and intensely personal.
“This is about emotion, about brain patterns, about individuality,” said university computer engineer Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, who is conducting the research funded by the National Science Foundation. “We don’t know the neural basis for art. The hope is that there will be a common element.”
His brain wave experiments, conducted at three Houston museums over the past year or so, are part of a growing scientific exploration of the human preoccupation with art, with potential implications for worldlier endeavors. Experts say our aesthetic judgments go well beyond paintings and sculpture to influence whom we find attractive, which designs and products we prefer and how we respond to abstract communications such as music or mathematics.
“It is one critical aspect of how people make choices,” said Anjan Chatterjee, a University of Pennsylvania neurologist and author of “The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art,” who studies how brain damage has affected working artists. “It is mysterious as to why it is such a big part of our lives.”
To be sure, it’s not likely that brain scanners, neural probes or brain wave measurements will solve the mysteries of art any time soon. There are too many variables of style, genre, period, culture, materials and subject. Aesthetic preferences are just too intensely subjective. “The art you like is the art I hate,” said New York University neuroscientist Edward Vessel, who studies aesthetics and how people are moved by visual experiences.
But researchers are starting to glean hints of the biochemical processes at work.
As an art critic, the brain is quick to judge. Shown an artwork for the first time, be it a landscape painting, a portrait or an abstract rendering of almost any style, people usually make a snap judgment of its aesthetic appeal. Brain-wave recordings suggest that the neural calculation takes 200 to 330 milliseconds, about as long as a photo flash.
“You experience the appeal of art, and you know right away whether you like it or not,” said Dr. Contreras-Vidal.
Gazing at Van Gogh’s dynamic swirling brush strokes evokes a sense of movement that activates portions of the brain’s visual motor cortex, according to brain scanning experiments conducted in 2012 at Boston College. In a similar way, a portrait activates the part of the fusiform gyrus area in the brain that is responsive to faces; the prettier the face in the portrait, the stronger the neural response. A landscape painting usually activates a portion of the parahippocampal gryus associated with places, according to a 2007 brain imaging study at the University of Southern California and New York University.
Art can stir emotions at the level of synapses. The “delicate sadness” of a mask used in traditional Japanese Noh theater activates the right amygdala, a small, almond-shaped brain structure associated with fear, sadness and other negative emotions, researchers at Kyoto University in Japan recently discovered. The pleasure at viewing a beautiful object appears to trigger the brain’s reward center.
Even so, those reflexive neural responses are colored by our expectations and experience. Generally, people rate abstract art as more attractive when told it is from a museum rather than generated by computer. “If people are told it is hanging in a gallery, they rate it as more appealing,” Dr. Chatterjee said. “They aren’t being polite. Their brains respond differently.”
In his brain scanning studies, Dr. Vessel at NYU tested people and their responses to 109 museum artworks from the 15th to the 20th centuries, encompassing Western and Eastern art as well as representational and abstract styles. Although the reactions were very personal, he found two neural networks are usually in play: One appears to respond to almost every painting, and one activates only in response to works that most strongly moved the viewer.
The most powerfully engaging works of art appeared to trigger brain regions in the frontal cortex that are involved in introspective thought, as well as nearby regions usually directed at more outward matters. The two areas usually don’t activate simultaneously. “That is a very rare state,” Dr. Vessel said. “It resonates in the shape of your mind.”
All these various art-appreciation experiments, though, have been conducted within the confines of a massive and very loud medical brain scanner.
In Houston, Dr. Contreras-Vidal is eager to test neural responses to art as people move freely at their own pace through a gallery. He uses portable electroencephalography (EEG) equipment, including a set of scalp electrodes that volunteers wear like a hat, to detect high-speed changes in neural electrical activity. “You can use EEG as you move or you dance or walk outdoors to view a piece of art,” he said.
With this technique, he has turned brain science into performance art. Working with the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston this fall, he has been staging his experiments in front of an audience.
Recently, he arranged for three local artists to play a drawing game on a stage. They took turns creating an image, while their brain waves and body movements were recorded. Each 45-minute performance generated more than half a terabyte of data, roughly equivalent to 200,000 digital song recordings.
All told this year, he has recorded brain waves from 700 men, women and children. He plans to gather such information from thousands more. “Art is becoming a Big Data problem,” he said.
News article originally published at Wall Street Journal.