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Your Brain on Art

Most people share the intuition that the creation and appreciation of art are important aspects of being human. Art moves us emotionally, and it is a source of meaning. We are in awe standing in the Altamira caves admiring paintings made more than 35,000 years ago, and cannot help but wonder about their meaning. Similarly, when we engage with artworks old and new, we are driven to ponder the intentions, ideas, and messages of their creators. What was going on in their brains as they created those artworks, and what goes on in our own brains as we appreciate them? Indeed, philosophers have been asking questions about the value of art for a long time. The theory of aesthetic cognitivism argues that the value of art is not only in its power to touch us emotionally — through delight, amusement, or disgust — but also in its role in facilitating a better understanding of ourselves, the human condition, and moral and spiritual concepts writ large. In other words, as we reflect on art, we might in fact learn more about ourselves or the world.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Empirical Visual Aesthetics (EVA) lab at the University of Vienna, which is approximately one mile away from the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The museum collection is truly awe-inspiring, including works by Rembrandt, Raphael and Michelangelo, among others. Critically, however, it also houses one of Vermeer’s well-known masterpieces — The art of painting (also known as The allegory of painting). Seeing a Vermeer is always special. Not only are there a total of 34 paintings firmly attributed to the Dutch master, but they are also dispersed geographically in different museums across the world, with many owning only a single exemplar. For those of us who love his works, there is great anticipation in arriving in a city that happens to include one of his paintings in a local museum. Needless to say, our group headed more or less straight to The art of painting. Much to our delight, this section of the museum was largely deserted, allowing us a good bit of time to engage with the artwork — certainly more than the average 27-29 seconds people spend viewing paintings in a typical visit.

For anyone unfamiliar with this work, it depicts an artist painting a woman, draped in an extraordinarily beautiful rendering of light emanating from a window — a hallmark of Vermeer’s work. The content is very rich in symbolism, allowing for lengthy contemplation of its meaning. Then, something very special happened: I felt a particularly strong connection not just to what is represented visually in the work, but to what its underlying message might be. There is of course no way to verify whether my interpretation of this message corresponded to what Vermeer was hoping to communicate.

Recently, Delaram Farzanfar and colleagues at the University of Toronto put Tinio’s Mirror Model of Art to test. A key postulate of this model is that early stages of art-making correspond to the late stages of art-appreciation, and conversely, that the late stages of art-appreciation correspond to the early stages of art-making. This “mirroring” hypothesis was tested with a meta-analysis of fMRI studies of creative production and aesthetic appreciation in the visual domain. The advantage of a meta-analysis is that it is a study of multiple existing studies, which can produce more reliable results than any single study. This analysis was focused on participants engaging in creative production or aesthetic appreciation for less than 30 seconds, allowing one to glean a picture of what is happening in the brain in the very early stages of those processes. The results demonstrated that creative production engaged prefrontal regions supporting ideation, whereas aesthetic appreciation engaged ventral visual stream and reward structures underlying perceptual and affective processing.

The results also revealed that creative production and aesthetic appreciation share many of the same underlying neural structures, suggesting commonalities between these two activities. Specifically, both creative production and aesthetic appreciation engaged the parahippocampal gyrus and the fusiform gyrus. Whereas the parahippocampal gyrus is involved in visual-spatial processing and episodic memories (recollection of previous experiences, including the context when they happened, where, and what emotions were associated with them), the fusiform gyrus is involved in the perception and recognition of objects. Artists are inspired by what they see in the world around them and draw on personal experiences to create their work. And viewers perceive art as objects — paintings, sculpture, video — and draw on personal memories in interpreting what they are seeing. Described this way, it is easy to see that neurological and psychological processes point to a tight coupling between the creation and appreciation of visual art. As noted by Steven Brown in his recent book The Unification of the Arts, creativity can be viewed as the source of cultural variants, whereas aesthetics is the appraisal mechanism for the products of creativity. In this way, aesthetic appreciation becomes the process by which consumers evaluate the appeal of creative products. Next time you’re at the museum, remember that your aesthetic judgments of artworks might matter more than you thought they did.

References Brown, S. (2022). The unification of the arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cupchik, G. C., Vartanian, O., Crawley, A., & Mikulis, D. J. (2009). Viewing artworks: contributions of cognitive control and perceptual facilitation to aesthetic experience. Brain and Cognition, 70, 84-91. Farzanfar, D., Vartanian, O., & Walther, D. (2022, March). Where creative production meets aesthetic appreciation: A meta-analytic test of the Mirror Model of Art in the visual domain using Activation Likelihood Estimation (ALE). Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity. Boston, MA. Goodman, N. (1978). Ways of worldmaking. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. Smith, L. F., Smith, J. K., & Tinio, P. P. L. (2017). Time spent viewing art and reading labels. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11, 77-85. Tinio, P. P. L. (2013). From artistic creation to aesthetic reception: The mirror model of art. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7, 265-275. Vartanian, O. (2022). The creative generation and appreciation of artistic artifacts in the visual domain. In L. J. Ball & F. Vallée-Tourangeau (Eds.), Routledge international handbook of creative cognition. New York: Routledge.


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