How Does the Brain Perceive Art? | Wired Science
We want to believe that pleasure is simple, that our delight in a fine painting or bottle of wine is due entirely to the thing itself. But that’s not the way reality works. Whenever we experience anything, that experience is shaped by factors and beliefs that are not visible on the canvas or present in the glass. Even the most exquisite works in the world — and what is more exceptional than a Rembrandt portrait? — still require a little mental help. We only see the beauty because we are looking for it.
….a team of researchers at Oxford University set up a simple experiment. They recruited 14 volunteers who were familiar with Rembrandt but had no formal training in art history. The subjects were then put into an fMRI machine and given the following instructions:
In this experiment you will see a sequence of 50 Rembrandt paintings. Before each image appears, an audio prompt will announce whether the upcoming painting is ‘authentic’ or a ‘copy’ (Please see background for further information on copies). A blank screen will appear for a few seconds after each image to allow you to relax your gaze.
The paintings themselves were all portraits, equally divided between Rembrandt and “school of Rembrandt.” While the subjects were staring at the paintings — they were given 15 seconds to look — the scanner was recording changes in cortical blood flow.
There was no detectable difference in the response of visual areas to Rembrandt and “school of Rembrandt” works of art … similar paintings would elicit virtually identical sensory responsesHowever, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”)
Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.
The last meaningful result from the fMRI experiment came when the subjects stared at the inauthentic portraits. It turns out that these fake Rembrandts generated the strongest activations, both in the frontopolar cortex and precuneus. The scientists explain this activation in terms of working memory, as the people were actively trying to “detect the flaws in the presented image.”
Summarizing the results:
Our findings support the idea that when people make aesthetic judgements,
they are subject to a variety of influencesNot all of these are immediately articulated. Indeed, some may be inaccessible to direct introspection but their presence might be revealed by brain imagingIt suggests that different regions of the brain interact together when a complex judgment is formed, rather than there being a single area of the brain that deals with aesthetic judgements.
These lessons don’t just apply to the evaluation of art. In fact, the same mental process also appears to drive our appreciation of expensive wine. In both instances, the sensory differences on display — say, the visual distinction between a real and fake Rembrandt, or the taste of Trader Joes Pinot versus a Romanee-Conti — are overwhelmed by our cognitive beliefs about what we’re experiencing.
Consider this recent experiment…subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better. They preferred the $90 bottle to the $10 bottle, and thought the $45 Cabernet was far superior to the $5 plonk. ….While a variety of brain regions were activated during the experiment, only one brain region seemed to respond to the price of the wine, rather than the wine itself: the orbitofrontal cortex. In general, more expensive wines made this part of the brain more excited.