Now coming up on two weeks into my stay in Paris, I’m amazed at how much art seeing (and walking!) opportunities there are across the city. I went to the Palace of Versailles this past weekend and learned a little bit more about myself in the process. The overall aesthetics of some of the rooms, like the Hall of Mirrors, were breathtaking. Throughout my time in France, the distinct architecture of everything still astonishes me. The fact that people could see a vision that combined order and beauty is a testament of the human ability. However, even though the palace exemplified all of these things with the added adventure of getting around, I still found myself more at peace and grounded in the presence of flowers. In a larger than life palace with years of French history intertwined in it, it was nothing compared to the gardens, random buildings’ intricate flower arrangements across town, and especially the unique paintings of gorgeous flower bouquet and sceneries that truly made me stop and smell the roses.
I couldn’t imagine why the Palace didn’t resonance with me as much as moving through a museum did; it was kind of a museum in some respects. My sister was shocked to learn I didn’t have plans to go to the Palace before this past weekend. It had been one of her favorite places in France, and she expected me to have the same experience. Surprisingly, I didn’t get that overwhelming feeling of wonder and disbelief at the magnitude that she and some of the people at the palace had. So, I started to research why do people have different aspects artistic expression that resonances with them more than others and came across the world of neuroaesthetics.
Neuroaesthetics is this field in neuroscience where researchers are trying to figure out what neural connections activate and interact while someone is having an aesthetic experience that causes joy or disgust (Belfi et al., 2019). The greater question of this field is exactly the question I was trying to answer: what makes something more appealing to one person opposed to another? The field has a large reach with questions like why humans chose the mates that we do, why we decide on one consumer product over the other, and perception’s effect on how we communicate (Chatterjee and Vartanian, 2014).
Neuroaesthetics continues to shine light on subjects such as what neural networks are involved when we view visual art. One study did this looking at how perception paintings as aesthetically pleasing or not affected what brain networks and structures were activate or deactivated (Belfi et al., 2019). Previous research found that the default mode network (DMN) was active when the person viewed artwork they thought was more moving, so the study recorded the DMN with fMRI processing as participants examined 90 paintings at various time lengths (Vessel et al., 2012) (Belfi et al., 2019). They found more DMN activation while the participants viewed a painting they thought was aesthetically pleasing compared to non-aesthetically pleasing works (Belfi et al., 2019). More DMN activation could lead brain system to associate a pleasing reward to the stimulus leading to a strong emotional response (Belfi et al., 2019).
So, while the Palace was objectively amazing to witness in real life, my perception of the art was not as high as the ones in the Musee D’Orsay leading me to some conclusions that my DMN could have been less active.
The museum experience is also a big determinate when viewing art as well. One study had a group of people examine art in a museum in Vienna and in a computer program to see if the way in which people received art would change their perception of it and their memory of the art (Brieber, Nadal, and Leder, 2015). Those that experienced the art through the museum had better recall of the art they saw and found the art to be more “arousing and pleasing” (Briber, Nadal, and Leder, 2015). So, there is the possibility that, in addition to a pretty weak DMN response, actually being in a museum where I expected to see this great art colored my perception of the paintings there compared to the palace’s paintings. The palace’s paintings I saw was great, but the palace did not support the type of art enjoying experience that a museum did. The participants in the study could stop and absorb a work as much as they wanted to much like my experience in the Musee D’Orsay: wandering around not knowing which work would capture me (Briber, Nadal, and Leder, 2015). This might have made the difference in my perception of the Palace as a whole.
It is pretty cool that even though we have the same brain systems activated with the aesthetically pleasuring figures, our internal states as well as the manner in which we consume art affects what we consider to be life changing pieces of art. I didn’t expect to stumble upon a whole section of neuroscience that I never encountered before to understand why Louis XVI’s chambers did not stimulate my DMN as much as Monet’s 1878 Chrysanthemums painting could.
If you want to learn more about the neuroaesthetics, Anjan Chatterjee is a cognitive neuroscientist that specializes in neuroaesthetics with research on how “certain configurations of line, color, and form” affect what humans consider to be beautiful (“Anjan Chatterjee: How your brain decides what is beautiful | TED Talk,” n.d.) . He talks all about his study in this 2016 Ted Talk.
From what I’ve learned in my research, your surroundings have just as much to do how you perceive the beauty as your brain networks do. Appreciation of art is never linear, so even if something doesn’t elicit a strong DMN engagement, it’s can still be a great experience, nonetheless.
Next stop, fingers crossed, the Catacombs!
Anjan Chatterjee: How your brain decides what is beautiful | TED Talk. (n.d.). Retrieved June 4, 2019, from https://www.ted.com/talks/anjan_chatterjee_how_your_brain_decides_what_is_beautiful
Belfi, A. M., Vessel, E. A., Brielmann, A., Isik, A. I., Chatterjee, A., Leder, H., … Starr, G. G. (2019). Dynamics of aesthetic experience are reflected in the default-mode network. NeuroImage, 188, 584–597. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.12.017
Brieber, D., Nadal, M., & Leder, H. (2015). In the white cube: Museum context enhances the valuation and memory of art. Acta Psychologica, 154, 36–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2014.11.004
Chatterjee, A., & Vartanian, O. (2014). Neuroaesthetics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(7), 370–375. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2014.03.003
Vessel, E. A., Starr, G. G., & Rubin, N. (2012). The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00066
Image #2: [Screenshot of the grounds at the Palace of Versailles]. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/maps/place/Palace+of+Versaillesfirstname.lastname@example.org,2.1106368,15z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x538fcc15f59ce8f!8m2!3d48.8048649!4d2.1203554
Image #1, #3, and #4 were taken by me