Why does the photo of a rolling wave against the backdrop of a sunset elicit a different aesthetic appreciation than a black and white portrait? Neuroaesthetics is a science that tries to discover how our brain comes alive when faced with an artistic image., a landscape photo, or a melody, which we consider beautiful. Research in neuroaesthetics is carried out using neuroimaging, which makes it possible to observe the brain confronted with situations or stimuli.
Definition of neuroaesthetics, at the crossroads of art and science
Derived from two Greek words, "neurology" and "aesthetics", neuroaesthetics tries to explain why it happens that a person can find an image of art more beautiful than another. By examining the brain imagery of people confronted with various visual creations, the scientists wanted to assess the impact of aesthetic exercise on brain activity. In theory, studying neural activity in this setting would identify the pillars of aesthetic judgment. In reality, the exercise is not as simple as it seems!
How can a beautiful art image make us happy?
Spoiler alert, the truth is that the perception of beauty cannot be reduced to neural activity. The German philosopher and psychologist Gustav Theodor Fechner differentiates two types of reactions to a stimulus: “direct” and “associative”. That is to say that we will, on the one hand, have a cerebral reaction to the object of our attention which stems from the environment and the very moment of the encounter with the stimulus. On the other hand, our perception will be determined by our understanding of an object, a melody or artistic photos, which comes from our education, our cultural background and our past experiences, among others.
In another register, the American researcher Dahlia W. Zaidel, a specialist in the psychology of art, also speaks of a degree of social attraction. She thus describes aesthetic sensibility as a driving force for the survival of the human species. Thus, the black and white portrait of a woman or a man who seems beautiful to us would hide a perception on our part of a potential sexual partner. The attractiveness criteria would then go well beyond a question of shapes, colors or the mastery of the technique used in the creation of an art image.
In an essay devoted to the subject, the researcher Fernando Vidal recounts a survey conducted by Russian artists in the United States in 1993. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid asked respondents what a painting should have in order for them to consider it beautiful. “America’s Most Wanted” (America's Most Wanted), the result of their investigation, is an art image consisting of a realistic landscape with the following components: a blue sky, clouds, hills, trees, people, a couple of deer, President George Washington and a hippopotamus. In the reverse table, “America’s Least Wanted” (the least sought after in America), was an abstract creation, with great reinforcements of geometry, executed in a coarse texture. The crowd had spoken and agreed all over the world, except for a few details. If we are almost all influenced by the canons of beauty dictated by our culture and our environment, it seems that a pastoral landscape is unanimous.
What is the use of neuroaesthetics?
Faced with an artistic image, we call on our cognitive abilities, which help us to recognize the repetition of an element or a color in a landscape photo, the fine texture of a layer of paint or the symmetry face in a black and white portrait. Neuroaesthetics tries to determine what can cause pleasure, alleviate anxiety or allow the promotion of an idea or product.
Some neuroestheticians refer to the reward system caused by the perception of beauty. Stimuli, such as an aesthetically pleasing beach photo, would activate regions of the brain related to the reward mechanism or the secretion of feel-good hormones such as dopamine, endorphin and serotonin.
However, neuroaesthetics finds its usefulness in more specific areas:
- The evaluation of aesthetic abilities in education,
- The development of works, artistic photos or so-called "neuroesthetic" products,
- The design of therapeutic objects and places to help people feel safer or happier,
- Improving the content of various and varied therapies,
- The building and the development of places such as hospitals or psychological care centers) to soothe the brain system and relieve pain,
- Art therapy already helps reduce anxiety and heal deep trauma by using the visual arts.
- The development of more striking marketing and design actions.
What conclusions can be drawn from neuroaesthetics?
Although neuroaesthetics currently lacks concrete applications, the underlying idea of determining that the perception of beautiful or ugly depends on a biological and non-cultural question, is already interesting in itself. It can contribute to clarify what cannot be explained in our cognitive functioning. On the other hand, some hope to draw from it an algorithm capable of automatically generating artistic pictures considered more beautiful than others. Which bodes a sad future for all the talents we exhibit on X-Plorar.
Despite advances in science, the judgment of the aesthetics of an art image or a creation remains divided between two things: the work and the reaction it provokes. By observing the brain activity of people in an MRI, scientists have observed that the areas of the brain which activate when their guinea pigs fall in admiration in front of a work, is the part of the brain linked to awake rest, itself connected to self-perception. They deduced that beauty had this ability to create harmony between the external world and our representation of the internal world, something that an algorithm is still far from being able to reproduce.