Ugly Art Makes You Run: Neuroscience of Beauty and Art Response

In his book, THE AGE OF INSIGHT (2012), Eric R. Kandel describes the research of  John O’Doherty and his colleagues who explored the mechanisms in our brain that account for our sense of beauty. They found that the orbitofrontal (ventrolateral) region of the prefrontal cortex, the region that is activated by reward and thought to be the apex of the representation of pleasure in the brain, is also activated by attractive faces. Therefore beauty to our eyes and brains is the same as a reward in a scientific meaning of it, simply not material but visual. Beautiful people is a reward to brain as well.

Ivica Grgic, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA and others

So what is beautiful and what is ugly according to neuroscience, and why some art is appealing and the other is not.

Li-Hsien Lin, University of Iowa

Semir Zeki of University College London found that the orbitofrontal region is also activated in response to other, subtly pleasurable images that we interpret as beautiful. Zeki conducted a study in which he first asked volunteers to examine a large number of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. He then had the volunteers classify the art, irrespective of category, on the basis of whether they found the painting beautiful or ugly. Zeki imaged the volunteers’ brains as they looked at the paintings and found that all of the portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, regardless of whether the viewer saw them as beautiful or ugly, lit up the orbitofrontal, prefrontal, and motor regions of the cortex. Interestingly, however, the pictures ranked most beautiful activated the orbitofrontal region most and the motor region least, whereas the pictures ranked ugliest activated the orbitofrontal region least and the motor region most. The activation of the motor region of the cortex suggests to Zeki that emotionally charged stimuli mobilize the motor system to be prepared to take action to get away from the stimulus in the case of ugliness or threat and toward the stimulus in the case of beauty or pleasure.

So the artworks that our brain considers dangerous, over-provocative or complicated make us want to run away, or at least terminate any interaction by exclaiming “This Art is Ugly”.

Douglas B. Cowan, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA

Another scientific fact proves audiences desire to understand the artist’s process. “Our response to art stems from an irrepressible urge to recreate in our own brains the creative process—cognitive, emotional, and empathic—through which the artist produced the work. This creative urge of the artist and of the beholder presumably explains why essentially every group of human beings in every age and in every place throughout the world has created images, despite the fact that art is not a physical necessity for survival. Art is an inherently pleasurable and instructive attempt by the artist and the beholder to communicate and share with each other the creative process that characterizes every human brain—a process that leads to an Aha! moment, the sudden recognition that we have seen into another person’s mind, and that allows us to see the truth underlying both the beauty and the ugliness depicted by the artist.”

The American Association of Immunologists

Its much easier to appreciate once we understand what an artwork means. Though does it always have to be conceptual understanding or visceral knowledge can counterbalance the experience? Also this neuroscientific statement leads to the extremely important question of active audience that in the realm of contemporary abstract art has to do the whole lot of work in order to gain an experience out of attending a gallery or a theatre.

Full article is on American Scientific. All images are The 2012 Bio-Art Winners of Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

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