Beauty and the Brain

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Can there possibly be a universal standard for what constitutes ‘the beautiful’ in art? The Ice Age Art exhibition, currently on at The British Museum, confronts us with this question by rooting the creation and appreciation of art in the emergence of a ‘modern mind’. The oldest piece in the exhibition—a small sculpture that is half man and half lion—is roughly 40,000 years old, but it is clearly already coming from a tradition of art-making. Curator Jill Cooke sees no practical explanation for the emergence of carving, engraving, and painting some time around 80,000 years ago; instead, she suggests that it is possible that the emergence of art stems from the development of the modern brain.

Lion Man Sculpture, Photo by Karl-Heinz Augustin, © Ulmer Museum

Lion Man Sculpture, Photo by Karl-Heinz Augustin, © Ulmer Museum

The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that beauty is not a property of an artwork, or of the natural world, but is a feeling of pleasure that comes from within us. Yet in spite of its subjective origins, he also held that judgements of beauty were universally valid. And while the enormous variety of artistic styles available today would seem to call into question the idea of a universal beauty—to say nothing of the ongoing lack of consensus around how we might even begin to define beauty—the underlying commonality of how we experience beauty, whatever its form, has led some to suspect that aesthetic judgements have a neural basis.

Neuroscientists have begun asking what cognitive science might contribute to our understanding of how we appreciate art, and to ask why certain pieces of art or music seem to have a particular hold over us. In short, neuroscientists are now tackling aesthetics, and this includes the problem of artistic beauty: is there a universal explanation for why we find some things beautiful? And by examining the responses of our brains to beautiful artworks, can we better understand beauty?

In a recent PLOS Biology essay, Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty, Bevil Conway and Alexander Rehding argue that the short answer is a conditional no. Although there is great potential for neuroscience to increase our understanding of perception, reward, memory, emotion, and decision-making, the authors suggest that there are limits to neuroaesthetics, and that the application of the tools of neuroscience to the study of artistic beauty might prove to be a dangerously difficult proposition.

 

What is beautiful anyways?

Claude Monet (1840-1926) Blue Water Lilies Between 1916 and 1919 Oil on canvas H. 200; W. 200 cm Paris, Musée d'Orsay © RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Blue Water Lilies
Between 1916 and 1919, Oil on canvas
H. 200; W. 200 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
© RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Conway and Rehding point out that the notion that art = beauty is a shaky one, and that much of modern and contemporary art has sought to reject the notion of beauty entirely. Some of the artists that we widely consider to be the greatest of the 20th century—Marcel Duchamp, Willem de Kooning, Joseph Bueys and Andy Warhol, to name a few—have all made art that is famously ‘ugly.’ Indeed, some of it may even turn your stomach and while that’s a strong aesthetic reaction, it certainly isn’t the same as the one you get when looking at a painting by Claude Monet or a sculpture by Alexander Calder.

A second problem concerns the aesthetic preferences expressed across cultures (e.g. what constitutes a desirable body shape) and the fact that our own preferences seem to shift over time. Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh did not see artistic success in their lifetimes, and the audience rioted at the opening of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Conway and Rehding quite aptly point out that “the only universal feature of beauty besides our capacity to experience it appears to be its mutability.”

 

How can we measure beauty?

If aesthetic judgements are, as Kant suggested, created by our brains, can we determine what parts of our brains are responsible for judgements of beauty? Although the fMRI scan is the traditional tool of those studying neuroaesthetics, Conway and Rehding have concerns about the experiments as they are currently conducted. What are we measuring? Might it be some complex mixture of perception, reward, decision-making and emotion? They also note the low spatial and temporal resolution of fMRI scans, suggesting that “brain imaging provides a blurry, although seductively glossy view of brain function.”

When we look at a brain scan, are we in effect getting an impressionist look at our response to beauty? Some studies have named the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC) as the “beauty centre” of the brain; however, Conway and Rehding suggest that the mOFC is just one of a number of brain regions responsible for value judgements, and it also seems to be responsible for making decisions that have nothing to do with beauty.

 

Should we bother?

Venus de Lespugue. Collection d'anthropologie du Museum national d'Histoire naturelle / Musee de l'Homme. Copyright of MNHN - MH / Daniel Ponsard

Venus de Lespugue. Collection d’anthropologie du Museum national d’Histoire naturelle / Musee de l’Homme. Copyright of MNHN – MH / Daniel Ponsard

So, if at the moment, the tools are rather blunt, and we don’t even know if it is possible to eliminate subjectivity from the study of beauty, is there any point? Although their essay is in many ways critical of the field of neuroaesthetics, Conway and Rehding are far from being sceptics. Rather, they advocate a neuroaesthetics that focuses on the neural mechanisms involved with decision-making and reward and the basis for our subjective preferences. Perhaps once these areas are better understood, we might better be able to begin the search for a beauty ‘instinct’.

This brings me back to the British Museum. It strikes me that, by understanding the faculties in our brains that compel us to make and experience art, we can better understand what it means to be human. When we work in our studios or discover art in a gallery or out in the natural world, what kinds of judgements and decisions are we making and how are we making them? I disavow the notion that an understanding why and how we appreciate art will make it less meaningful to us, thereby spoiling the mystery. I suspect that this knowledge might actually deepen our appreciation, and it might even help us to nurture that aesthetic capacity in ourselves and in our children more effectively. Might we eventually be able to bring this same approach to bear on a more subtle question still: what are the origins of the creative impulse itself? Should we?

Ice Age Art is on at the British Museum (London) until 28 May 2013, and is highly recommended. 

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The Beauty and the Brain by At the Interface, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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