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Neuroesthetics: Science to Understand Art

Neuroaesthetics bridges two fascinating branches of knowledge, such as neurology and art. In this article we delve into this relationship, trying to understand, for example, why we are attracted to certain objects or faces.

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For centuries, questions like “What is art?” “How do we perceive beauty?” “What determines that something is beautiful?” Have inspired many reflections. And it seems that, for about ten years, neuroaesthetics has been here to decipher it. This recent discipline, also called neuroart, combines knowledge and techniques derived from neurosciences and art.

For many it may seem absurd to quantify and measure art, but the purpose of this current is to find the common points of all artistic works. It is desired to know what happens in the brain of a person when he receives through the senses an aesthetic work or when he creates it.

What’s the point?

From a biological point of view, the aesthetic response could be based on a specialized type of attraction. This special attraction can be given to concrete objects, people, colors, ideas, etc.

The attraction or aversion has had a fundamental role in the evolution of our species and its benefits are evident. For example, we are prepared to be attracted to the colors of healthy foods (and we dislike foods that look bad, like rotten fruit). We also feel greater attraction for certain faces and we are, in general, better at identifying micro-gestures that will help us to have reproductive success.

On the other hand, art depends on the senses, and these depend on the brain. Thus, there is no doubt that at the brain level signs will be found that indicate that a work we are liking.

How is it possible?

The main findings in the field of neuroaesthetics have derived from different types of research. As in many areas, the first results were observed as a result of studying the cognitive processes and people with brain injuries. Neuroimaging studies have also been conducted on subjects while giving positive or negative judgments about works of art. And, of course, observing brain reactions to different artistic lines (dance, music, painting, etc.).

Mainly, these studies in neuroaesthetics make use of the functional magnetic resonance, which allows to collect information about which zones and with what intensity they are activated during a task. In detail, there are also studies that use physiological techniques such as the electroencephalogram.

What can be known?

A study conducted in 2007 by a team of neurologists aimed to answer whether beauty is completely subjective. To do this, inside a functional magnetic resonance machine, they showed the subjects images of Classic Art and Renaissance sculptures. On the one hand, they showed the original images, and on the other, those same sculptures but with the modified proportions.

After showing them, they had to say whether they liked them or not and, subsequently, make a judgment about the proportion. What these scientists found was that, upon observing the original sculptures, an activation of the insula occurred. This region is especially related to abstract thinking, decision making and perception.

On the other hand, when they said they looked beautiful, the right part of the amygdala was activated. This brain region is crucial in the processing of emotions, especially satisfaction and fear.

However, according to another study, the perception of beauty and ugliness are processed by the same areas (orbitofrontal cortex), differing simply in the intensity of activation.

Not everything is brain

In spite of everything, as is understandable, not everything is in the brain. In the conception of beauty and attraction to certain artistic works the influence of culture is enormous. Therefore, it is essential to take into account the social and cultural context when drawing conclusions about what is considered beautiful.

For example, a neuro-aesthetic study observed that the works presented to the participants that had a label with the location of the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) were perceived as more beautiful than the rest (of unknown location). However, whatever the cultural determinants, the exciting thing is that two different works will cause the same effect in the brain of different people.

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