Even after years of backpacking through museums I still see the same three kinds of gallery visitors: the enthusiasts that try to find the beauty in every piece, the critics that only find value in the works with the most detail or symbolism, and the “oh, that’s cool” troupe that falls in between. The visitors I saw during my trip to the Musée de l’Orangeire, unfortunately, fell into similar categories. I suppose I expected to see more enthusiasts in Paris than I had in the United States considering the number of statues and beautiful architecture I discover each day just on my commute to class.
The moment I realized that Parisian gallery visitors act no different than those back home happened when I spotted a series of painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. I couldn’t help to stop and stare at his work. One painting in particular titled “Jeunes filles au piano” really caught my attention.
I identify as a sculpture, a monochromatic one at that, and yet I was captivated by Renior’s palate choice for this painting. Everything from his brush strokes to the wrinkles of the girls’ clothing to drew the finer details in the chair, dresses, and facial expressions kept me rooted to my spot in awe. A couple speaking in French broke me from my trance when walked up beside me, pointed the image, then carried on as if not impressed. A moment later I realized that I stood alone at the paint, the only person in the room giving it much attention while standing in others walked by it.
Everyone has different kinds of perception and perspectives on art, and yet at time we all interpret many basic forms of art perception similarly. Despite how we perceive the world in textures, colors, shadow, and highlights, we can still recognize simple line drawings that lack those qualities as quickly and accurately as we can identify photographs of the same scene (Biederman and Ju, 1988). When someone compares the appeal of an artwork such as a photograph or painting, whatever the viewer considered to be a beautiful paintings created more brain activing in a particular region of the brain than images the individual found ugly (Lengger et al., 2007). This area of the brain was found to be the left dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, or lDLPFC.
Imagine the moments when you’ve had to plan your day’s schedule the night before or when you had to do work out the price of a discounted item in your head. Both of these tasks activate areas in and around the lDLPFC just like when we judge the beauty of art, places, and even people (Sayim, 2011).
One particular study by Cattaneo et al. hypothesized that how much beauty we see in something or someone is based solely on how much stimulation the lDLPFC receives. Using twelve participants, these researchers showed them a series of representational or abstract images and asked to rate the images beauty. Several days later the participants were shown the same set of images but this time underwent either a sham or real transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. The tDCS is a stimulator whose electrodes were placed on the skin of the head over the lDLPFC of each participant. When turned on, the electrodes made the participants’ foreheads tingle and itch for the first 30 seconds before the itching sensation subsided. The real tDCS stimulation sent electrical pulses to the lDLPFC to cause additional activation in that part of the brain for 20 minutes. The sham tDCS made the paticipant’s forehead tingle for the first 30 seconds, but it was turned off soon after. The participants couldn’t tell if they were getting the sham or real tDCS.
The results showed that when stimulated by the real tDCS, the participants rated representational images to be more beautiful than the sham tDCS group. There was no statistical difference, however, in how the participants rated abstract images compared the sham group.
As things turn out, the lDLPFC seems to be related to how much beauty we find in the things we perceive. Maybe an artist’s or art critic’s constant exposure to artwork caused them to have more stimulation in the lDLPFC and have a greater appreciation for art. Maybe many people found the Renior’s painting of the girls at the piano too abstract to fully understand.
Biederman, I., and Kim, J. G. (2008). 17000 years of depicting the junction of two smooth shapes. Perception 37, 161–164.
Sayim B and Cavanagh P, What Line Drawings Reveal About the Visual Brain, Front. Hum. Neurosci. 5 (2011).
Lengger, P., Fischmeister, F., Leder, H., Bauer, H. (2007). Functional neuroanatomy of the perception of modern art: a DC-EEG study on the influence of stylistic information on aesthetic experience. Brain Research, 1158, 93–102.
Cattaneo P, Lega C, Flexas A, Nadal M, Munar E and Cela-Conde C, The world can look better: enhancing beauty experience with brain stimulation, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9 (2013).