5 Things You (Probably) Don't Know About How Our Brains Process Beauty and Art
By Seth Porges
Why, as humans, are we instinctively drawn to beauty and decoration? And where exactly in our brains does art–and art appreciation–come from? To answer these questions, researchers look to the field of neuroaesthetics, which seeks to understand the complex and often counterintuitive ways in which our brains process concepts such as art and beauty. To break apart the many myths of beauty and the brain, I spoke to Anjan Chatterjee, a pioneer in the field, professor and chief of neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital, and author of The Aesthetic Brain. It turns out, almost everything most people think they know about the science of art and beauty is wrong.
Artistic Expression Is The Rare Neural Process That Can Improve After Brain Damage
“It’s a kind of paradoxical thing that can happen. In some instances, people with brain damage, their artistic expression gets better. There isn’t really any other higher order system in the brain where this claim can be made. Whether it’s language or decision making or perception, there are no instances that I can think of where brain damage improves things. It doesn’t always happen with art, but it can and it raises questions about what kind of systems are involved.”
It’s Not Just The Right Brain
“The idea that right hemisphere is for art production is flat-out wrong. Whenever I’m on the road talking about this, that’s one take home message I want people to have. It’s a much more distributed system and how that distributed system gets weighted is different depending on the type of art you’re doing. If what you’re doing is very detailed and realistic, that’s very different than something like Rothko. These are all very different activities that draw on different parts of the brain.
Where The “Right Brain Is For Art” Myth Came From
“I think the way it came about is that it does look like the left hemisphere seems to have some specialized capacity for language, and the right hemisphere has some specialized capacity for certain kinds of visual information and visual-spatial intention. Out of that, the inference was made that art is visual and not verbal and so it comes from the right hemisphere. There was also book in the 70â€²s that really popularized this notion which is how I think it entered the popular imagination.
The evidence we’ve martialed to say this can’t be right: What should happen to people’s art with right brain damage is should devastated and left brain damage shouldn’t effect it. That’s simply not the case.”
Our Brains May Equate Beauty With Moral Goodness
“People may not know the extent to which our brains respond to beauty even when we’re not aware of it. There are implicit reactions to beauty, and some work showing certain parts of our reward systems are activated both by beauty and buy moral goodness that overlap.
One thing that we’ve found recently is almost the inverse of that. With minor facial disfigurement, people ascribe all sorts of social characteristics. People are viewed less intelligent, less hardworking, and so forth.”
We Seem To Be Hardwired To Decorate
“There is a decorative impulse that seems to run very deep across people, and you can see it across space and across time. In almost any environment, you see people doing stuff that’s purely decorative. Whether its marking something or doing graffiti or neanderthal graves where flowers are placed on them. There seems to be a deep-seeded impulse for decoration that’s not about utility, but about making something that looks appealing in addition to being useful.
You see this in everyday stuff. People who tend to use Mac products are willing to pay a premium for a nicely designed device even though it accomplishes the same thing as a different device. We’re even willing to put a monetary value on aesthetics, over and above the utility of an object. This feels like a fundamental aspect of our being.
As for why, this is a deep question and not a short answer. There is something about making things special. There is something about this symbolic nature things can take. Some might argue it’s a kind of display. The peacock’s tail is an example of a decorative display that is also expressing the fitness of person doing the display. The bottom line is, I think, it’s a bunch of factors that come together that have to do with some basic biological basis that gets intermixed with culture.”
This article was written by Seth Porges from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.