The overwhelming feeling landing in Paris just a few short weeks ago can only be described as a combined wave of nervousness, anxiety and excitement. I didn’t expect to feel that sensation again so soon, but walking into the Louvre brought the same, overwhelming rush. I was amazed by the architecture of the building and its’ perimeter and tried not to look like a typical tourist stopping to take pictures along every step of the way. After attempting to blend in with the crowd by buying some “French” coffee, we grabbed a map of the museum and (blindly) picked a starting point.
We started with the Ancient Egyptian exhibit, which was confusing given the French descriptions mounted by all of the pieces. The intricacies of the hieroglyphics, artwork and tools, however, transcended the language barrier. After walking through, we were tired (we had climbed the Eiffel Tower earlier that day) and decided to head to one more piece before completing our day—the famous Mona Lisa.
Following the crowd, we made our way to the other side of the museum and quickly saw the international amalgamation surrounding this infamous painting. How is it that this one painting can draw so much attention from so many different people? Part of the interest in this picture lies in the mystery behind its creation—why did Leonardo da Vinci paint this picture? Who is the woman depicted here? Is she real? These questions are unanswered and add to the mystery associated with this artwork. One of the elements of this painting that interests people from across disciplines and countries is the ambiguity in Mona Lisa’s smile. When we look at this infamous smile in the context of neuroscience, we should consider the role of visual perception. Visual perception in itself is a bridge between art and science, as this is the type of information processing that takes different visual stimuli from our environment and processes them into a “single”, interpretable unit. Visual perception is broken down into different elements such as visual closure, memory, form constancy, spatial skills and more (Chakravarty 2011). All of these factors contribute to how we perceive the outside world via our vision.
Scientists have taken this described cognitive approach to vision and have applied it to different areas of the brain. They have found that vision and interpretation of what we see relies on multiple brain areas. The primary visual area is referred to as V1, and next to this area are different, specialized regions such as V3 (recognizes the shape and size of an object), V4 (color perception) and V5 (essential in identifying object motion) (Chakravarty 2011).
Taking a step back, it is clear that there are multiple parts of the brain with their own specific, intricate mechanisms that can affect the way faces and objects, for example the Mona Lisa, can be perceived and processed across any given population. The human visual system has allowed us to, over time, develop specific visual skills that correspond to face perception (Haxby et al., 2000). For example, individuals with brain damage in the ventral occipitotemporal cortex (an area in the brain associated with visual perception) have difficulty in recognizing faces—but can recognize objects with ease (Haxby et al., 2000). This condition, prosopagnosia, is one that supports the claim that there are very specific areas in the brain associated with face perception—perhaps providing a neurological reasoning behind the fascination with the Mona Lisa. The fact that this is a portrait of a mysterious face might be driving the worldwide fascination.
When actually getting a better look at the Mona Lisa after pushing through the crowds of people, the neuroscience student in me couldn’t help but wonder how many different neurobiological systems were working in order for me to appreciate this piece of art. I had to focus on the picture, discern the face from the background, take in account of the colors, recognize that this was a portrait, and attempt to make associations and recall what I had learned about this piece in my high school art class. Aesthetic preference is yet another factor that has significant neurological underpinnings. Cela-Conde (2011) found, through various neuroimaging studies, that certain areas in the brain (the hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus and the amygdala) are all actively engaged when individuals are aesthetically pleased with a piece of artwork. When patients with neurological conditions (in which these areas degenerate) are presented with previously “pleasing” pieces of artwork, the patients show a completely altered taste and preference. This supports that these areas of the brain have some influence over the cognitive perception and appreciation of artwork. Similarly, studies have reported that damaging the amygdala (an area of the brain primarily associated with emotion) can alter artistic, visual preference. Individuals with amygdala damage generally expressed a liking for “…geometrical shapes, landscapes and color arrangements” when compared to the healthy, control groups (Cela-Conde et al., 2011).
Perhaps the fascination with the Mona Lisa is brought about by the evolutionarily driven sensitivity to faces. Or, maybe there is a genetic predisposition in some of our brain’s visual areas to appreciate certain types of artwork. Some scientists even suggest that the ambiguity in her smile activates area V5, an area of the brain involved in perceiving movement, which enhances aesthetic appeal (Chakravarty 2010). Regardless of the reasoning, there are complex neurological mechanisms by which we process not only the Mona Lisa, but also every other sculpture, painting or realistically anything in our visual field. Visual perception in itself relies on cognitive theories and activation of various brain areas to yield some form of appreciation of art—now try not to think about that next time you go to a museum.
Written by: Noareen Ahmed
Cela-Conde C, Agnati L, Huston J, Mora F, Nadal M (2011) The neural foundations of aesthetic appreciation. Progress in Neurobiology 94: 39-48.
Chakravarty A (2010) Mona Lisa’s smile: A hypothesis based on a new principle of art neuroscience. Medical Hypotheses 75: 69-72.
Haxby J, Hoffman E, Gobinni M (2000) The distributed human neural system for face perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4: 223-233.