The science of aesthetics

Sarah Mogin Oct 2, 2006

Paul Klee, an early 20th-century artist, once said, “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes things visible.” Art has a way of capturing the unfathomable, of translating emotions beyond the capabilities of science and theory. But art can do more than explain our feelings; it can help explain our minds.

Aesthetics, the study of personal taste, has always been a subject of philosophical debate. Probably the most argued aesthetic concept is the origin of beauty: Is it really in the eye of the beholder, or is beauty a specific quality, independent of its audience?

In recent years, neuroesthetics emerged as a branch of aesthetics equipped with potential new answers to this question. Semir Zeki, part of the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience at University College in London, pioneered the field of neuroesthetics in order to fill a void in the general study of beauty.

“I am convinced that there can be no satisfactory theory of aesthetics that is not neurobiologically based,” wrote Zeki in “Artistic Creativity and the Brain,” an essay in a 2001 issue of Science.

The realm of visual art contains some compelling examples of works relevant to the properties of the brain.
Piet Mondrian’s famous compositions of primary colors on white canvases separated by black, horizontal, and vertical lines were the artist’s attempt to uncover the essence of form.

Years after Mondrian created his works, neurobiologists discovered orientation-selective cells, cells in the brain that only react to straight lines. Scientists now consider orientation-selective cells as the most basic components of form perception.

“This is why I believe that artists are, in a sense, neurologists who unknowingly study the brain with techniques unique to them,” wrote Zeki. However, artists are not alone in their exploration of the brain. In 2003, Zeki and research partner Hideaki Kawakbata conducted an experiment, “Neural Correlates of Beauty,” out of University College.

Their purpose was to uncover whether the same part of the brain reacts to paintings, both beautiful and ugly, regardless of their type (portrait, landscape, still life, or abstract). Ten participants monitored via a 2T Magnetom Vision fMRI scanner rated each of 196 paintings by pressing one of three buttons corresponding to the three categories.

For a portion of their analysis, Zeki and Zawakbata ignored the four types of paintings and considered parts of the brain that were activated by judgments of beauty and ugliness.

They detected four areas of heightened activity: the medial orbito-frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, the parietal cortex, and the motor cortex.

Of these, the orbito-frontal cortex and the motor cortex sustained an increase in activity when recognizing beauty and ugliness, respectively.

Zeki and Zawakbata’s discovery answered the question that had originally motivated the research. The data indicates there are specific brain areas that become active during judgments of beauty and ugliness regardless of the type of art being evaluated. Thus the evaluation of beauty must be neurologically tied to the observer.

“All human activity is ultimately a product of the organization of our brains, and subject to its laws,” Zeki stated.
“A major function of art can thus be regarded as a function of the brain, namely to seek knowledge about the world.”
According to Zeki, there are two fundamental laws of visual perception: constancy and abstraction. He postulated that many famous works of art obey these laws.

The law of constancy dictates that the brain must focus on only certain elements of an image, those that remain constant. It would be impossible to take into account the volatile aspects of every image we perceive, like lighting, viewing point, and distance.

Cubism, an art movement associated with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, was in part a conscious attempt by its participants to ignore such fleeting components of perception.

Similarly, the law of abstraction also enables the brain to learn of its environment efficiently. An observer has the ability pick out abstract concepts from particular images. This is because the human memory is not large enough to store all of the particulars; we must instead be able to hold onto concepts.

Three-fifths of Michelangelo’s sculptures, those left unfinished, are excellent examples of the rule of abstraction. His sculptures are abstract in the sense that the brain has the task of completing them.

Completed works of abstract art necessitate the same function. Part of the struggle of an artist is to translate an abstract mental concept into a physical object. Once the work is created, the viewer interprets what has been left in the abstract. Neuroesthetics is just one way to consider the broad topic of aesthetics.

“Aesthetics is generally regarded as a field of philosophy,” said Dennis Dake, a professor in the art and design department at Iowa State University.

In recent years, neurologists have argued in favor of a connection between art and its observer, and their results are paralleled in the art community.

“Without an audience you don’t have anything,” Dake said.

Dake compared a painting without an audience to a tree falling in a forest where no one is present: “It has to somehow be accepted by the people in the field.”

Scientists and philosophers alike are still far from forming any definitive conclusions on the subject of aesthetics. Fortunately, the body of material available for research only continues to grow.

“Art history is to the artist as ornithology is to the birds,” said Dake. Birds will continue to fly, just as artists will continue to create art.