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Better Art Appreciation Through Brain Stimulation

by Jillian Steinhauer on November 21, 2013

BrainGIFA new study has found that electronic stimulation to a certain part of the brain could help you appreciate art better. Science!

The study, titled “The world can look better: enhancing beauty experience with brain stimulation” and published in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal, was conducted by Milanese psychologist Zaira Cattaneo and a team of fellow researchers. For their experiment, which is outlined in a Pacific Standard blog post, the group selected 12 participants who were neither trained in nor particularly interested in art. Those people were shown sets of 150 images of figurative and abstract artworks on the computer and asked to indicate how colorful each was and how much they liked each one. They also performed each exercise twice: once before and once after their left dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes had been stimulated.

What Cattaneo and team found is that the electronic brain stimulation “resulted in a modest (around three percent) but statistically significant increase of aesthetic appreciation of representational images (both artworks and photographs).” But — and this is quite a kicker — “stimulation did not affect evaluation of abstract images.” So, science and technology can help us better understand landscapes and portraits, but the New Casualists and their ilk are out of luck.

As for what increased aesthetic appreciation actually means — well, the way Pacific Standard describes it is that “your focus shifts from content (that’s a picture of a tree on a hillside) to context (notice the subtle interplay of shapes and shadings).” In other words, you start looking past the easily identifiable elements of an image and sussing out subtler, more refined ones, which is basically what you learn to do when you study visual art and art history. Then again, one obvious question mark hanging over the study (besides the small number of participants and the small percentage increase) is the use of a computer to show the images. Paintings heavy on context and form often contain subtleties that you can’t discern in reproduction (unless, maybe, you’re using Google Art Project); that’s sort of the whole point of museums.

In their abstract for the paper, the researchers point out that we don’t just make aesthetic judgements about art; we make them about other people, too. This means their findings could have implications well beyond art appreciation. Maybe you’ll appreciate the form and curvature of someone’s face even if you think they’re ugly at first glance. This could be good for first dates — just get a dose of electronic left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex stimulation on your way out the door.

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