A recent analysis in the growing concentration on neuroaesthetics, a field that examines the brain’s relationship to art, suggests our minds are particularly organized to respond to visual art.
Published this month in the scientific journal Brain and Cognition, the paper “Neural correlates of viewing paintings: Evidence from a quantitative meta-analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging data” by scientists at the University of Toronto is a meta-analysis of 15 studies conducted between 2004 and 2012 across seven countries. Using MRI data from 330 participants who viewed paintings as part of these studies, researchers recognized that across the board, the brain response involved a diverse but consistent cross section of neural areas. As noted in their abstract: “These results suggest that viewing paintings engages not only systems involved in visual representation and object recognition, but also structures underlying emotions and internalized cognitions.”
The Wall Street Journal summarizes this more succinctly: “art appreciation is a natural biological process.” Through the MRI data, it was revealed that “paintings activated areas of the brain involved in vision, pleasure, memory, recognition and emotions, in addition to systems that underlie the conscious processing of new information to give it meaning.”
The Journal also noted a caveat that the results are based on viewing art inside an uncomfortable MRI scanner. Yet the researchers’ analysis, which recontextualizes data from a wide range of art studies, seems to suggest that the structure of our neurobiology is adapted for reacting to the layers of art, from its immediate visuals to deeper meanings. The logical response may be that this is because other human brains made the art. Whether you’re viewing an abstract color field or a figurative Romantic landscape, what you’re seeing is the path of another person’s mind on the canvas.
Why does all of this matter? Humans have enjoyed art for millenia, and there’s arguably no need to spend research money on neuroaesthetics rather than, say, investigating the mental roots of phantom-limb pain. But art studies like these can help reveal more about our brains’ biology and what they’re wired to do.
As Semir Zeki at University College London wrote in a paper called “Art and the Brain”:
No profound understanding of the workings of the brain is likely to compromise our appreciation of art, any more than our understanding of how the visual brain functions is likely to compromise the sense of vision. On the contrary, an approach to the biological foundations of aesthetics is likely to enhance the sense of beauty — of the biological beauty of the brain.