Coming to Paris the first thing I noticed was the architecture. As an architectural studies minor, I love seeing new styles of building and the effects they have on how we perceive a city. Just from the buildings, Paris is already classier than any city I’ve been to in the U.S. I was even told that the reason most apartment buildings don’t have air conditioning is because Parisians don’t want to mar the beautiful façade of the buildings with ugly air conditioning units (I don’t disagree with this decision).
Not only is the architecture beautiful in Paris but also the artwork in the plethora of museums. Just in this first week I’ve visited three museums: the Musée de l’Orangerie, Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre. Each one is always filled with people admiring the artwork. The interesting aspect about art is that its beauty is subjective and intangible, and yet, it is relatable to many. After all, there is a reason that 10.2 million people visited the Louvre in 2018 (taking into account the fact that some people go just to say they’ve gone). This absurd number of people has me thinking, is there a way to detect the real art connoisseurs from the charlatans who only go to the museums for the Instagram post?
One way to answer this question is to find evidence that there is a difference in brain activity between art experts and non-experts when viewing a piece of art. Such a study was done by Kirk et al. in which the authors asked architects and non-architects to rate the aesthetic value of building images while fMRI studies tracked neural activity (Kirk et al., 2009). Before this study, it was already
known that brain areas that are active in processing reward such as the striatum, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) are also active when perceiving visual aesthetics such as paintings (Vartanian and Goel, 2004). Because of this, Kirk et al. focused on fMRI studies of these brain locations in architects and non-architects to see if there was a difference in neural activity. It should be noted though that other areas such as the parahippocampal gyrus are activated during visual perception and judgement of value, but are not explicitly studied in this experiment (Chatterjee and Vartanian, 2016).
Eleven architects/grad or postgrad architecture students and 13 undergrad/grad students with no formal art-related education were asked to rate the level of aesthetic appeal for 168 building images by pressing buttons 1 (lowest appeal) to 5 (highest appeal) while in the fMRI scanner. Results showed that there was a significant increase in ACC and OFC activity in architects compared to non-architects when asked to make an aesthetic judgement of the building (Kirk et al., 2009). These results are controlled by data that show no significant difference in neural activity when architect and non-architect were asked to make an aesthetic judgement on a neutral stimulus such as a face (Kirk et al., 2009). Thus we know that the difference in neural activity in the ACC and OFC is due to the judgement of buildings specifically. Interestingly enough, other areas of the brain active during reward that are predicted to also be active during aesthetic judgement such as the nucleus accumbens show no significant difference in activation between architect and non-architect during building aesthetic evaluation (Kirk et al., 2009). Overall, we can conclude that the anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex have different neural activities in art experts vs non-experts when asked to judge the beauty of an artwork.
So what does this mean in terms of differentiating the connoisseurs from the charlatans? Essentially there is no real way to tell the difference without access to fMRI scans of everyone’s brains, since behavior in making aesthetic judgements (such as reaction time in aesthetic judgement) is not significantly different between experts and non-experts when viewing a piece of art (Kirk et al., 2009). So good news for us charlatans, no one will be exposing us anytime soon during our next museum visit!
Chatterjee, A., & Vartanian, O. (2016). Neuroscience of aesthetics. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 172-194.
Kirk, U., Skov, M., Christensen, M. S., & Nygaard, N. (2009). Brain correlates of aesthetic expertise: A parametric fMRI study. Brain and Cognition, 69, 306-315.
10.2 million visitors to the Louvre in 2018. (2019, January 3). Retrieved from https://presse.louvre.fr/10-2-million-visitors-to-the-louvre-in-2018/
Vartanian, O., & Goel, V. (2004). Neuroscience correlates of aesthetic preference for paintings. NeuroReport, 15(5), 893-897.