Can Brain Science Explain Why We Like Certain Artworks?

Taylor Michael
Why do some people love Impressionist paintings like Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” (1906) while others can’t understand the hype? The question of aesthetic taste has stumped scholars for centuries. Now, neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) say they have come closer to decoding how the brain decides which artworks it deems good or attractive. In a study published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, CalTech Professor John O’Doherty and other researchers propose that the mind creates an opinion of an artwork after dissecting it into discrete elements. Basic features, such as color and texture, and complex qualities, like style, are ranked and weighed individually to make a judgment. “Imagine you have a team of people in a panel making a decision on something, and then the decision is based on the collective views of the panel,” O’Doherty told Hyperallergic. “The idea is similar when it comes to how your brain integrates the individual elements of the image.” For the study, researchers used machine learning and brain scanning technology to find the mental lobes that analyze artwork. (The report builds on a 2021 study in which the lab trained an algorithm to predict 1,000 volunteers’ tastes in art.) Volunteers ranked paintings across movements, such as Impressionism, Cubism, and Color Field art, while a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine scanned participants’ brain activity. Researchers inputted the artwork into an algorithm that analyzed its low- and high-level features. These computational models were linked to show which lobes processed which qualities. O’Doherty was surprised at how many parts of the mind were involved, from the occipital lobe, a back portion responsible for processing sight, to the prefrontal cortex, where complex decision-making happens. But the process, the researchers suggest, is just one example of how humans make rapid and sometimes difficult decisions about what’s potentially beneficial or harmful for survival. People similarly process what food they prefer based on an item’s protein, fat, carbohydrate, and micronutrient content, according to research conducted at O’Doherty’s lab. Kiyohito Iigaya, who now teaches at Columbia University, said in a CalTech statement that the food-related findings inspired their research about art. “I think it’s amazing that this very simple computational model can explain large variations in preferences for us,” Iigaya said. While the study makes the brain’s ability to decide its tastes less “mystical,” O’Doherty remarks that his team has only scratched the surface. The study shows some features the human mind uses, but does not address how people rely on personal, historical, or social experiences to relate to a painting.
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