The brain is wired to appreciate art according to a study that looked at the brain centers that were activated when people looked at paintings. The study analyzed the data from previously published studies that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to obtain brain activity patterns while individuals looked at art. The normal brain areas that one would expect to be involved in vision and object recognition were activated but what was more of a surprise was the anterior insula was involved, which is an area of the brain important in experiencing emotions.
The study, which was carried out at the University of Toronto and published in the journal Brain and Cognition, was a meta-analysis study, which means they did not collect original data but instead found data from already published studies and then analyzed the data all together. Some of the studies included giving subjects directions to judge the aesthetics of the art and, in the other studies, the participants just viewed the paintings without any instructions or restrictions. A total of 330 people participated in the studies and the ages of the subjects ranged from 18 years to 59 years. In some studies, people looked at actual paintings and in others people gazed, three at computerized images of paintings. Fifteen studies that were published from 2004 to 2012 were included in the meta-analysis. The study was international in that subjects from seven countries participated.
The pattern of brain areas that were activated when viewing art was said to be a distributed system, as opposed to a linear type of activation. The main visual parts of the brain, such as the visual cortex, were activated, as expected. Areas of the temporal lobe that are known to be involved with object and scene perception were also part of the activation system. The anterior insula and posterior cingulate cortex were activated, which added in an emotional component to the experience. This is where the art appreciation may come in. These two areas of the brain are said to be involved with inner thoughts and emotional experiences.
A question that may come to mind in some, is what about individual differences in appreciating art? Could this somehow be related to individual differences in this activation system in brains? What about genetics versus environmental factors in the development of this brain activation system? A question for a future research project to answer is whether or not some people are genetically inclined towards a brain that is wired to appreciate art. Parents who are interested in going to art museums likely take their children with them, at least from time to time. It may be difficult to sort out whether an inclination to enjoy and appreciate art is due to genes that wired up the brain in a certain way or could it be that mom and dad had great influence because they loved to have family days at the art museum.
The study did not describe the types of paintings that were included in the meta-analysis, for example, how colorful they were or whether they were portraits or landscapes. Just as with music, some people appreciate certain types of art more than others. Most people appreciate the beautiful, colorful works of the Impressionists but contemporary, minimalist art may have fewer fans. It would be interesting to know if the brain is wired differently to appreciate different types of art because apparently the brain is wired to appreciate art itself according to a study that looked at the brain centers that were activated when people looked at paintings.
By Margaret Lutze