The Neuroscience Of Art

By Julia Bianco on April 9, 2014

We all experience some kind of art almost every single day of our lives, be it through paintings, music, fashion, television, or any other form of expression. Art is extremely salient throughout human culture, but, even though it is such a huge part of how we live, there isn’t really much known about art itself.

Why do we like certain forms of art and not others? Is it because of some perfect combination of lines, colors, or sounds, or is it simply because we like what we are told we should like? Would a beautiful Renaissance work of art have the same effect if it were displayed in someone’s living room instead of a fancy museum?

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These are the questions that many scientists in the growing field of neuroesthetics are starting to ask. These scientists study the different ways in which the brain processes art, information that is starting to provide some insight into what makes a work of art into a work of art.

The field of neuroesthetics mainly involves functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, studies that monitor observers’ reactions when looking at certain types of art.

One such study, done by neuroscientist Ulrich Kirk at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, involved showing subjects a few different pieces of art, some that he said were high class art, and others that he said were created by Photoshop. In actuality, none of the pictures were Photoshopped, but Kirk found that subjects still had a stronger neurological reaction to pieces that he said were fine art.

Photo by Bahman Farzad on

Other neuroesthetics studies look at the many things that attract us to art. There are a few different elements that make art attractive, including lines, color and luminance. However, one of the most prevalent things that attracts us to art is symmetry.

In art, everything is exaggerated: when we see a face, it is a representation of a face, with features that no real face would actually have. We find this extremely appealing because of something known as the peak shift principle, which says that we are more attracted to exaggerated versions of particular forms.

A study with Herring seagull chicks demonstrated this phenomenon, and showed that it extends to more than just humans. The study involved showed chicks paintings of mother seagull beaks, without any attached bodies. Although this was just a two dimensional representation of their mother, the chicks were still attracted to the drawing of the beak, and tried to get it to feed them, as their mother did.

Often, this is what attracts us to famous Renaissance paintings, which present an exaggerated, perfect human form. However, it also works in other ways, attracting us to images that present a strange or faint depiction of a familiar object.

“I think you’re seeing the same thing with all kinds of abstract art,” said V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. “It looks distorted to the eye, but pleasing to the emotional center of the brain.”

Photo by Bahman Farzad on

Art isn’t only pleasing to our brain for that reason, though. Various studies have shown that when we look at art, we activate mirror neurons in our brain.

Mirror neurons are basically the brain’s form of empathy. If you look at someone who is demonstrating how to write on a piece of paper with a pencil, the same neurons will be activated as if you were the one writing. This same phenomenon has been shown when looking at popular works of art, as images like Degas’ ballerina will often make viewers feel like they’re dancing.

A recent study by Scientific American looked further at the effect of mirror neurons on art. The study, which was a statistical analysis on 93 neuroimaging studies of vision, hearing, taste and smell, found that the main area activated when looking at or hearing works of art was the anterior insula.

The anterior insula, which is part of the cerebral cortex that is typically associated with negative emotions like disgust and pain, is an unusual area to be affected by supposedly pleasant works of art. The Scientific American study found that this area was activated mostly because, when we look at art, we are analyzing its value.

Photo by Bahman Farzad on

According to their conclusion, we look at art in the same way that we look at a microwave we’re thinking of buying or a potential mate. We are examining its usefulness, or its possible value to our survival.

Value can change, depending on the situation. Although I may look at the microwave with approval if I need to buy a new microwave and it comes at an attractive price, I will probably look at it with disgust if I hate microwaves or if I don’t have the money to buy it.

This same phenomenon applies to art. If I am in the mood to look at art, it will arouse my brain in the same way that the smell of my favorite food would. When art is pleasant to us, it activates the same parts of our brain that we use to think about things like food, water and shelter.

Everyone has their own tastes when it comes to art. For some people, visiting a classical art museum sounds like one of the worst possible ways to spend a day. However, for others this is extremely appealing. The same could happen with heavy metal music—some people may listen to it all the time, while others cannot stand the sound of it.

Although studies in neuroesthetics have yet to find a concrete reason for why people like certain forms of art and not others, what they have found is truly incredible: we see art as something that we need to survive.

By Julia Bianco

Uloop Writer
I'm an entertainment columnist for ULoop's national team. I also watch a lot of TV.

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