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Art appreciation, self-reflection may go together in the brain

April 26, 2012
Courtesy 
and World Science staff

A net­work of brain struc­tures ac­ti­vat­ed dur­ing in­tense aes­thet­ic ex­pe­ri­ences over­laps with an­other that’s as­so­ci­at­ed with in­ward con­templa­t­ion and self-assessment, re­search­ers have found. 

New York Uni­vers­ity sci­en­tists asked 16 paid study sub­jects, hav­ing slight to mod­er­ate lev­els of past ex­po­sure or educa­t­ion in art, to ex­am­ine 109 im­ages of pic­tures from mu­se­ums in a database. The art­works were from a wide range of cul­tures, time pe­ri­ods and styles, in­clud­ing some ab­stract works; none were par­tic­u­larly fa­mous.

Sub­jects were asked to rate each work based on how strongly it “moved” them—not fo­cus­ing nec­es­sarily on beau­ty, but rath­er on what struck them as “pow­er­ful, pleas­ing, or pro­found.” Dur­ing all this, their brain ac­ti­vity was scanned with a tech­nol­o­gy called func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance im­ag­ing.

There was lit­tle agree­ment among view­ers in terms of which art­works re­ceived their high­est rat­ings—fours, on a scale from one to four. But one con­sist­ent find­ing was that a spe­cif­ic net­work of brain re­gions went in­to ac­tion for view­ers as they looked at those art­works that they found spe­cial, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.

The net­work con­sisted of front­al ar­eas of the brain, just be­hind the fore­head, and “sub­cor­ti­cal” re­gions, which are rel­a­tively deep in the brain. This ac­ti­vity al­so in­clud­ed sev­er­al re­gions be­long­ing to the brain’s “de­fault mode net­work,” which had pre­vi­ously been as­so­ci­at­ed with self-referential think­ing, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said.

“Aes­thetic judg­ments for paint­ings are highly in­di­vid­ual, in that the paint­ings ex­pe­ri­enced as mov­ing dif­fer widely across peo­ple,” they wrote, re­port­ing their find­ings in the jour­nal Fron­tiers in Hu­man Neu­ro­sci­ence. “But the neu­ral sys­tems sup­port­ing aes­thet­ic reac­tions re­main largely the same from per­son to per­son. More­o­ver, the most mov­ing paint­ings pro­duce a se­lec­tive ac­tiva­t­ion of a net­work of brain re­gions which is known to ac­tivate when we think about per­sonally rel­e­vant mat­ters such as our own per­sonal­ity traits and day­dreams, or when we con­template our fu­ture.”


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A network of brain structures activated during intense aesthetic experiences overlaps with a brain network associated with inward contemplation and self-assessment, researchers have found. New York University scientists asked 16 paid study subjects, with slight to moderate levels of past exposure or education in art, to examine 109 images of pictures from museums in a database. The artworks were from a wide range of cultures, time periods and styles—including both representational and abstract—but none were particularly famous. Subjects were asked to rate each work based on how strongly it “moved” them—not focusing necessarily on beauty, but rather on what struck them as “powerful, pleasing, or profound.” During all this, their brain activity was scanned with a technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging. There was little agreement among viewers in terms of which artworks received their highest ratings—fours, on a scale from one to four. But one consistent finding was that a specific network of brain regions went into action for viewers as they looked at those artworks that they found special, according to the researchers. The network consisted of frontal areas of the brain, just behind the forehead, and “subcortical” regions, which are relatively deep in the brain. This activity also included several regions belonging to the brain’s “default mode network,” which had previously been associated with self-referential thinking, the investigators said. “Aesthetic judgments for paintings are highly individual, in that the paintings experienced as moving differ widely across people,” they wrote, reporting their findings in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. “But the neural systems supporting aesthetic reactions remain largely the same from person to person. Moreover, the most moving paintings produce a selective activation of a network of brain regions which is known to activate when we think about personally relevant matters such as our own personality traits and daydreams, or when we contemplate our future.”