Beauty and the Brain

My favourite place to go in Ottawa is the National Gallery of Canada.  It holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of Canadian art.  It also includes extensive collections of European and American art covering all the major eras in art history.

One very moving experience I had there was in the Baroque Room. It was the first time I saw a painting by Luca Girordano called The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew. I was gripped by the way the light flooded over Saint Andrew’s body and the powerful expressions on the faces of all the characters. Whenever I get a chance to visit the gallery, I always make sure I stop by the Baroque Room for another viewing. I’m always transfixed.

We’ve all had this kind of peak experience.  It might be a work of art, an architectural wonder or a landscape.  We feel swept up in the moment and overwhelmed by the beauty of it all.  These expressions make a deep impression on us.  The memories last a lifetime.  In fact, they can change our lives forever.

Great minds have always puzzled over why we find certain things beautiful.  We’re told that Thales of Miletus was so captivated by the night sky that he tripped and fell into a well.  His rescuers teased him for being too heavenly minded.  It’s a fable, and the moral, according to Ennius is, “No one regards what is before his feet when searching out the regions of the sky”.  I have a feeling that Dare to Know readers can relate to that remark.

Plato and Aristotle were concerned with beauty in terms of its objective form, and in its spirit, the world of mental formations. The mental aspect has occupied other thinkers over time. There’s a whole branch of philosophy called aesthetics.

I gained a better understanding of aesthetics from a book called Philosophy of the Arts by Gordon Graham. He leads the reader to the conclusion that, while art touches on pleasure, beauty and the expression of emotion, the great works of art are meaningful. In his words, “The value of art is neither hedonic, aesthetic nor emotive, but cognitive, that is to say, valuable as a source of knowledge and understanding.”

If art appreciation is cognitive, it must have to do with the human mind.  We seem to be the only species with this characteristic.  What makes the appreciation of beauty part of our humanity?  A team of researchers led by Edward Vessel of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Germany has been looking into this question.  They showed images of art, architecture and natural landscapes to a group of subjects.  They examined the subjects’ brain functions during this process using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Readers might think that the parts of the brain that deal with vision would show some sort of pattern.  That wasn’t the case.  The scientists saw very different patterns of activity in the visual parts of the brain between subjects.  This was true even when everyone agreed that a given image was beautiful.

Where the researchers did find a pattern was in regions of the brain called the default mode network.  These aren’t parts of the brain we usually associate with external perception.  They are usually active when our minds are engaged in inward contemplation.  By this we mean activities like self-reflection, mind wandering and imagination.  Even so, these regions of the brain seem to come to life when we experience art. They appear to trigger our response to beauty and determine how we selectively engage with highly moving visual artworks, like the Crucifixion of Saint Andrew.

This seems to confirm what most of us feel intuitively.  Great art is somehow connected with our own imagination and our deepest inner reflections.  Real beauty touches us on an inner level in a way that is impossible to express.  Something subjective is going on within us that plays a much greater role than the objective qualities of the image itself.

Readers will have heard of art therapy.  Understanding how this subjective process works inside the brain could give us new insights into how to improve peoples’ mental health and well-being.  It might also help us improve how people learn things.  Having tools to trigger these responses might be invaluable to teachers around the world.  These peak experiences seem to be bound up in our more complex human experiences.  Understanding how that works could be invaluable to artists by showing how to craft experiences to share with others in the future.

This study only dealt with the visual arts.  The researchers are now thinking about how these findings would relate to other art forms like music or poetry.  Great poems or compositions do seem to trigger the same kind of peak experience for some of us.  How does the default mode network behave when we listen to music or read poems?  If we did an MRI on people doing these things, would we see the same patterns?

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Max Plank Institute for Empirical Aesthestics
The default-mode network represents aesthetic appeal that generalizes across visual domains
Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics
The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew
Science Daily



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s