Tag Archives: Monet

Mon-ayyy I can see!

I’ve worn glasses ever since I was in second grade. Yes, I was unfortunately THAT Asian girl who wore her hair in a middle part, high ponytail every day and had blue plastic glasses. Ever since I got glasses, naturally, my vision has gotten worse and I currently stand at a -9.00 prescription for my contacts. As someone who has had bad vision for two-thirds of her life, I was particularly intrigued by our vision module during our “Arts on the Brain” class. We began to explore the world of sight and learned that many famous artists had some sort of visual impairment. Claude Monet, a French impressionist painter, had cataracts which are speculated to have aided him in trailblazing the Impressionist art style. Our class wrapped lab goggles in plastic wrap to mimic the effects of cataracts, and we were able to see the beautiful gardens in Giverny through Monet’s eyes. This led me to research more about the cognitive effects of having visual impairments, specifically cataracts, and what Monet’s cognitive state might have been like.

Left to Right: original photo, drawing, drawing with cataract glasses

First, what exactly are cataracts? A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye, which lies behind the iris and the pupil. Our lens is analogous to a camera lens, hence the name, and it refracts light rays to help focus on image on the retina. A clear lens lets us see a clear picture. The lens is made of water and protein that is arranged in a precise way to keep the lens clear and let light pass through it. However, as we age, some of the protein may clump together and start to cloud a small area of the lens. This is a cataract. Over time, the cataract may grow larger and cloud more of the lens, making it even harder to see (NEI, 2015). Usually, aging is the most commons cause for cataracts, but traumatic injuries, UV exposure, and certain medical problems can also lead to the development of cataracts (Boyd, 2018).

Normal eye vs. Eye with cataract

Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes in 1912 at the age of 72, which aligns with what we would expect for age-induced cataracts. Monet was very reluctant to go through cataract surgery, and in the end, he only had restorative surgery in one eye. His left eye, clouded by a dense yellow cataract, could not see violets and blues, but his right eye could see these colors clearly. This distortion in color perception and acuity had an impact on his work where tones became muddier and darker and forms became less distinct. Monet apparently complained that “colors no longer had the same intensity for me” and that “reds had begun to look muddy”, and that “my painting was getting more and more darkened” (Gruener, 2015). Monet was audibly upset about his impairment, but I wonder if his mood or cognitive state would have been improved if he had gotten the surgery in both of his eyes.

Monet’s paintings of water lilies are impacted (Left 1889 vs. Right 1915)

Some studies have been conducted that look at the impact of cataract surgery on cognitive function in an aging population. A study by Jefferis et al. looked at the effect of cataract surgery on cognition, mood, and visual hallucinations in older adults who had bilateral cataracts. Participants, who were all 75 years of age or older, were assessed pre and post-operatively. The investigators measured visual acuity through logMAR, Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination (ACE-R), the 15-item Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS-15), and the North East Visual Hallucinations Inventory (NEVHI) (Jefferis et al., 2015). ACE-R evaluated six cognitive domains: orientation, attention, memory, verbal fluency, language, and visuospatial ability (Mioshi et al., 2006). Small but significant benefits in cognitive scores were seen 1 year after surgery, but there was no statistically significant difference in mood or hallucinations.

A different study by Fukuoka et al. in 2016 found that cataract surgery could improve cognition, although there was insufficient evidence for a definite conclusion (Fukuoka et al., 2016). A follow-up study in 2018 found that cataract surgery may play a role in reducing the risk of developing mild cognitive impairments independently of visual acuity, but not for dementia (Miyata et al., 2018). A loss of vision can be associated with loss of cognition. It is interesting to see how when the sensory input of sight is disturbed, there are cognitive effects that occur. The relationship between vision and cognition have not been explored extensively, but there are specific visual disorders that have been shown to share common pathogenic pathways with Alzheimer’s disease (Rogers & Langa, 2010). Some speculate that individuals with visual impairment allocate more attention resources to processing sensory information, leaving fewer resources for cognitive tasks (Lindenberger & Baltes, 1994). Additionally, there is a common factor to vision and cognition and that is the degeneration of central nervous function (Christensen et al., 2001. These studies provide great insight into how Monet or even people like our grandparents might be affected by declining vision.

Cute elderly couple with glasses

Cataracts and cognitive impairment are both age-related diseases. Especially with how the proportion of older adults are increasing in the world, it is important to see how we can improve their quality of life as they get older. These studies allowed us to gain more insight into how vision or sight for older populations may have an additional benefit of cognitive improvement.


Boyd K (2018) What Are Cataracts? American Academy of Ophthalmology https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/what-are-cataracts

Fukuoka H, Sutu C, & Afshari NA (2016) The impact of cataract surgery on cognitive function in an aging population. Current Opinion in Ophthalmology 27:3-8

Gruener A (2015) The effect of cataracts and cataract surgery on Claude Monet. British Journal of General Practice 65:254-255

Jefferis JM, Clarke MP, & Taylor JP (2015) Effect of cataract surgery on cognition, mood, and visual hallucinations in older adults. J Cataract Refract Surg 41:1241-1247

Lindenberger U, Baltes PB. Sensory functioning and intelligence in old age: a strong connectionPsychol Aging 1994; 9:339–355

Miyata K, Yoshikawa T, Morikawa M, Mine M, Okamoto N, Kurumatani N, Ogata N (2018) Effect of cataract surgery on cognitive function in elderly: Results of Fujiwara-kyo Eye Study. PLoS One 13

National Eye Institute (2015) About Cataracts. National Eye Institute https://nei.nih.gov/health/cataract/cataract_facts

Rogers MA & Langa KM (2010) Untreated poor vision: a contributing factor to late-life dementia. Am J Epidemiol 171:728-235

Tay T, Wang JJ, Kifley A, et al. Sensory and cognitive association in older persons: findings from an older Australian populationGerontology 2006; 52:386–394


At Giverny: My own

Cataracts: https://nei.nih.gov/health/cataract/cataract_facts

Monet, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies (1889): https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437127

Monet, Water Lilies (1915):


Old people with glasses: https://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/good-vision-throughout-life/adult-vision-19-to-40-years-of-age/adult-vision-over-60-years-of-age

A Glimpse Through Monet’s Eyes

Standing in Monet’s Garden in Giverny, I donned a pair of scratched, plastic-covered, yellowed glasses and watched the once-breathtaking view in front of me melt into a muddied and obscured version of its former beauty. As a class, we had taken a day-trip to explore the place that Monet painted his famous water lilies. Monet is thought to have had worsening cataracts as he aged, which

Monet’s garden (Personal image)

impacted his vision and therefore his artwork. To simulate his experience, in class we had made “cataract glasses” by altering a pair of safety glasses, and we wore them for part of our time in the garden. I sketched the scene, noting how the vibrant, defined foliage lost its form and beauty. Certainly, this distortion altered my perception and gave me a unique perspective. However, at the time, I did not consider my final product a very appealing result.

My Monet-inspired glasses, meant to imitate vision with cataracts (Personal image)

But, this representation of the scene wasn’t inherently bad, and being impaired didn’t necessarily make my depiction worse for its lack of accuracy! It may even be that “impairments” enhance creative ability: even with the failing functionality of his own vision, Monet was able to transform any scene into a masterpiece.

My sketch of the same scene without (left) and with (right) the glasses (Personal Image)

In other realms as well, what may be deemed an impairment may turn out to be neutral or even beneficial to an individual’s creativity or artistry! Perhaps surprisingly, recent research suggests that this may be the case for some dementia patients.

One study by Midorikawa et al. (2016) involved analyzing new or increased positive abilities that appeared in patients with behavior-variant frontotemporal lobe dementia (bvFTD) or Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). These types of dementia are the ones in which enhanced abilities—such as new or improved drawing, singing, or painting skills—are most commonly reported after disease onset, leading to an apparent boost in creativity or artistry.

First, to briefly introduce the diseases of interest: FTD and AD are both types of

The different brain regions affected by FTD and AD. (Image from ElderlyCareAssistance.info)

dementias, diseases in which brain cells begin to die. FTD is a rather rare type of dementia that begins early in life. Cells die in parts of the brain that deal with social skills, decision-making, and emotion—especially the front and the side (What is Frontotemporal Dementia?). The specific type called behavior-variant FTD (bvFTD) is characterized by changes in personality such as disinhibition, inappropriate behavior, and loss of empathy. (Kurz et al., 2014). AD, which is one of the most common types of dementia, usually begins later in life. A lot of the initial cell death happens in the hippocampus, a structure associated with memory, so memory problems are often some of first symptoms (Miller and Hou, 2004).

Some of the items from the questionnaire (Image from Midorikawa et al., 2016)

In this study, caregivers of people with FTD and AD filled out a questionnaire, ranking the patients on a variety of positive behaviors in three different categories: sensory processing, cognitive skills, and social/emotional processing. On a four-point scale, caregivers indicated the frequency of the listed behaviors in each category for their patient “before the illness” and “at the present time.” Prior to the study, each patient was also diagnosed by a neurologist and assigned a clinical dementia rating, or CDR. (Higher CDR numbers indicate a more advanced or severe stage of disease.) This would allow the researchers to see if there were differences in ability between various stages and types of dementia.

Study results: y-axis indicates the average score. X-axis indicates clinical dementia rating (CDR) for Alzheimer’s Disease or frontotemporal dementia. (Image from Midorikawa et al., 2016)

Subtracting the “before” score from the “present” score, the researchers obtained a representative value, where a positive number indicates more of the behavior since diagnosis. Averaging these values for each diagnostic rating, Midorikawa et al. (2016) performed a statistical test to assess the magnitude of change in that behavior. What they found was that some of these positive behaviors significantly increased after disease onset! In particular, they found that (as can be seen in the graphs below) both AD and bvFTD patients actually exhibited more language-related activities–meaning creativity in self-expression through language–in the earliest stages of the disease. Additionally, a small portion of patients of both dementias experienced an increase in visuospatial activities, which includes things like being able to depict scenes through painting or drawing!

Although patients at later stages of the disease experienced decreases in these behaviors, it is a very intriguing finding that patients’ creative expression actually increased after disease onset. Moreover, there have also been many case reports documenting increased artistic output following neurological damage due to other causes, such as traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s Disease, and semantic dementia (Midorikawa and Kawamura, 2015; Canesi et al., 2016; Hamauchi et al., 2019). Just like with Monet, it appears that what appears to be a deficit may in reality not be quite so detrimental to the creative process!

One strength of this study was how all patients underwent a comprehensive neurological evaluation by the same experienced neurologist. This was effective to confirm the diagnoses of the patients using consistent parameters and to assess disease severity. However, being survey-based, these measures were quite subjective and may not be entirely accurate. What it contributes to the field, though, is that it is one of the first studies to systematically analyze these changes in artistic ability: others have primarily been case studies of individuals. The study also offers a unique perspective: most work on dementia serves to analyze the deficits that occur due to cell death. This study, however, highlights

Painting by one AD patient without previous artistic training or ability before disease onset (Image from Schott, 2012).

some positive aspects of the disease, contributing to a rather new initiative that is working to change the dynamic around mental impairments. Rather than viewing perceptual differences as incorrect or indicative of pathology, maybe we should allow ourselves to appreciate the creativity.

In sum, even though I felt a bit ridiculous in the moment, wearing my cataract glasses in Monet’s garden taught me a powerful lesson: A change in perspective is not necessarily bad, even when the conventionally beautiful scene undergoes some alterations in the process. Perhaps if more people would be willing to look a bit silly and try on some Monet cataract glasses, we could all come to appreciate those with neurological damage and perceptual differences a little bit more, valuing them for the unique perspectives they bring to the world.



Canesi, M., Rusconi, M.L., Moroni, F., Ranghetti, A., Cereda, E., Pezzoli, G. (2016). Creative Thinking, Professional Artists, and Parkinson’s Disease. J Parkinsons Dis. 6:239-246. doi: 10.3233/JPD-150681.

Frontotemporal Dementia- Signs and Symptoms. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ucsfhealth.org/conditions/frontotemporal_dementia/signs_and_symptoms.html

Hamauchi, A., Hidaki, Y., Kitamura, I., Yatabe, Y., Hashimoto, M., Yonehara, T., Fukuhara, R., Ikeda, M. (2019). Emergence of artistic talent in progressive nonfluent aphasia: a case report. Psychogeriatrics. 10.1111/psyg.12437.

Kurz, A., Kurz, C., Ellis, K., Lautenschlager, N.T. (2014). What is frontotemporal dementia? Maturitas. 79:216-219. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2014.07.001.

Midorikawa, A., Cristian, L.E., Foxe, D., Landin-Romero, R., Hodges, J. R., Piguet, O. (2016). All is not lost: positive behaviors in Alzheimer’s Disease and Behavioral-Variant Frontotemporal Dementia with disease severity. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 54:549-558. doi: 10.3233/JAD-160440.

Midorikawa, A., Kawamura, M. (2015). The emergence of artistic ability following traumatic brain injury. Neurocase. 21:90-94. doi: 10.1080/13554794.2013.873058.

Miller BL, Hou CE. (2004). Portraits of Artists: Emergence of Visual Creativity in Dementia. Arch Neurol. 61:842–844. doi:10.1001/archneur.61.6.842.

Schott, G. D. (2012). Pictures as a neurological tool: lessons from enhanced and emergent artistry in brain disease. Brain. 135:1947-1963. doi: 10.1093/brain/awr314.






Hyperlinked videos and sites:





Therapeutic Days in Paris

While walking through the halls of Musée d’Orsay looking at the masterpieces on the walls, I felt at peace. A calmness washed over me as I carefully studied each brush stroke of Monet and Cezanne. I tested my knowledge of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and tried to understand the feelings being conveyed by Monet and Cezanne with each detail they added. Even though there was chattering around me, the museum seemed still. I sat on one of the benches amongst the artwork and wrote a journal entry about the difference between Monet and Cezanne. There was something therapeutic about being in this museum and reflecting on the styles of different artists. Throughout my time at the Musée d’Orsay, I felt a type of serenity that I had yet to experience in the bustle of Parisian streets. As I left the museum, and entered the real world, all my emotions rushed back. I was making lists of what work I had to do, and the peace of mind vanished. There was something about being in that space and the artwork surrounding me that served as a therapy and I wanted to know how I could recreate it. Lucky for me, when we were painting our neurons, I felt that same calmness and I wondered what it was about art and painting that helped me relax.

Cezanne’s Le Joueur de cartes

Monet’s Japanese Bridge







Art therapy is a form of treatment used to help patients express emotion, relieve stress, and cope with illnesses through mediums like painting, photography, drawing, and modeling. The goal of art therapy is to help the patient grow and better understand themselves in order to progress and reach a level of acceptance of who they are and how they feel (Psychology Today, 2019). It serves as a method for allowing the patient to express themselves creatively while the therapist tries to decode messages and nonverbal cues throughout the artwork (Psychology Today, 2019). Using the visual imagery and other sensory networks, we are able to use artwork to understand the relationship between mind and body (Hass-Cohen and Findlay, 2015). Walking through Musée d’Orsay and painting our photoreceptors felt a lot like art therapy to me, even though they weren’t exactly the same. Certain pieces at the museum spoke more to me because of my emotional connection and while painting, I was expressing my feelings through the choice of color and style.

My interpretation of photoreceptors

In neuroscience, studies have shown the use of art therapy in helping people undestand more nonverbal cues and vocalize those cues into a narrative (Hass-Cohen and Findlay, 2015) For example,  in treating post traumatic symptoms, researchers used art therapy as a mechanism of bridging the gap between the unspoken and emotion (Tinnin, 1990). Traumatic moments are often nonverbal because talking about them and the feelings attached is painful and therefore, a nonverbal treatment like art therapy may be more effective with patients (Gantt and Tinnin, 2008). Patients suffering from PTSD were treated with art therapy as a form of vocalizing the unspoken feeling and expressing part of the memories that have been burried to effectively heal the patient internally (Gantt and Tinni, 2008). Additionally, studies done on female textile creators have shown that making these beautiful handcrafts have increased their moods, helped them feel grounded, and eased their ability to cope with stressors (Collier, 2011). These women used textile making to change their moods and reported the frequency and well-being after creating this artwork. The reseracher found that those women who crafted more frequently were more rejuvenated and successful compared to women who did not craft (Collier, 2011).

After understanding these studies, I found that many of the reasons I felt so calm after the museum and painting was because I was engaging in art therapy. Using my emotions and expressing them outwardly helped bring peace and quiet internally!


  1. Art Therapy. (2019). Retrieved June 6, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/art-therapy
  2. Collier, A. F. (2011) The Well-Being of Women Who Create With Textiles: Implications for Art Therapy, Art Therapy, 28:3, 104-112, DOI: 1080/07421656.2011.597025
  3. Gantt, L., & Tinnin, L. W. (2008, December 27). Support for a neurobiological view of trauma with implications for art therapy. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0197455608001081
  4. Hass-Cohen, N., & Findlay, J. C. (2015). Art Therapy et the Neuroscience of Relationships, Creativity, et Resiliency: Skills and practices. Retrieved from https://books.google.fr/books?hl=en&lr=&id=9gudBAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT11&dq=clinical neuroscience art therapy&ots=Xz_U8ZYZBS&sig=URDlxg8jTGwekMjmWt4MJpFFUlQ#v=onepage&q=clinical neuroscience art therapy&f=false
  5. Tinnin, L.W. (1990). Biological processes in nonverbal communication and their role in the making and interpretation of art. The American Journal of Art Therapy, 29, pp. 9-13

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Mount Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne.

The short time that I’ve been in Paris has felt so much longer than a few weeks. Last week, I spent several hours at the Musée d’Orsay, where I finally fulfilled my dream of viewing impressionist masterpieces face-to-face. A few nights later, I was looking through the photos that I’d taken during my recent travels, when one particular photo of a building caught my eye. Something about the image irked me. The asymmetry, I realized, was throwing my mind into a sort of desire to fix the photo. I began to wonder: What makes something beautiful, and what does symmetry have to do with it?


A building I saw when walking to the Soup Bar and thinking I didn’t like the way it looked.


A study by Makin and colleagues used a “gaze-driven evolutionary algorithm” to examine three factors: 1) Do people evaluate symmetry instinctively? 2) Do people prefer perfect symmetry or slightly imperfect imagery? 3) When people grow familiar with symmetry, do they lose fascination with it? Researchers employed eye-tracking technology to observe for factors that attracted 54 test subjects’ gazes (Makin et al.,2016). Observation of event-related potentials (ERPs) following exposure to abstract patterns suggested that ERPs responsible for aesthetic evaluation (beautiful vs. ugly) did not fire during evaluation of symmetry. In regards to the three questions initially posed, overall results suggested that, though symmetry was a significant factor in participants’ selection, 1) people do not automatically evaluate symmetry, and rather prefer slight imperfection; 2) people do not express marked preference for either symmetry or slight imperfection; 3) people’s interest in symmetry does not change following familiarization.

Based on this study, it seems like symmetry plays a part in all of our visual imagery preferences, though likely not to a critical extent. Perfect isn’t perfect. The question of aesthetic preference brought my thoughts back to what I’d seen at the d’Orsay. I began thinking about Cézanne and Monet, and what I’d read.

When Cézanne split from the impressionist project of “worshipping light” (Lehrer 103), he began a ceaseless quest to mimic the fleeting nature of the physical world. The images we see slowly take shape as they filter from V1 to V5. As Jonah Lehrer writes, “If the mind didn’t impose itself on the eye, then our vision would be full of voids” (Lehrer 117). Cézanne’s nonfinito technique taps into this process. Unlike the classic impressionists, Cézanne’s use of blank space mimicked the brain’s process of filling in emptiness to create meaning in otherwise meaningless sensory information.

Take, for example, a thin gray stripe, a “fragile scratch against the sprawling void” (Lehrer 115). Alongside the ambiguous forms of trees, a river, and the sky, it adopts a sensible identity as a mountain range, as our mind has already identified a coherent nature scene. Cézanne’s art alludes to the senselessness of reality and our capability — and need —  to make sense of it.

Vered Aviv concludes that abstract art promotes new meaningful neural connections that lead to higher-level brain states. The brain process after viewing abstract art “is apparently rewarding as it enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain” (Aviv, 2014). “‘The eye is not enough… One needs to think as well.’ Cézanne’s epiphany was that our impressions require interpretation; to look is to create what you see” (Lehrer, 2008).

Research by Hochstein and Ahissar proposes that “Vision at a glance reflects high-level mechanisms, while vision with scrutiny reflects a return to low-level representations” (Hochstein and Ahissar, 2002). Impressionism attempted to recreate an ‘impression’ of nature, a fleeting moment. Though Cézanne’s works outgrew impressionism with its abstract techniques, Monet’s works remained comparably decipherable and photographic. One might compare Cézanne’s works with what Hochstein and Ahissar call vision at a glance, and Monet’s to vision with scrutiny, a prolonged observation and interpretation of a perceived landscape. If “Cézanne’s art was a mirror held up to the mind” (Lehrer, 2008), then “‘Monet [was] only an eye’” (Lehrer, 2008), a lens.

Lehrer writes that “[Cézanne] forces us to see, in the same static canvas, the beginning and end of our sight… The painting emerges, not from the paint or the light, but from somewhere inside our mind” (Lehrer, 2008). Though recent research has since revealed much more about art, visual interpretation, and various other related processes, Cézanne was an anomaly of his time, a painter with a vision that was simultaneously humanistic and scientific.

When photography first developed during the era of impressionism, French painters rebelled because “the camera was a liar… Because reality did not consist of static images. Because the camera stops time, which cannot be stopped” (Lehrer, 2008). I wonder what Cézanne would have thought in my position. Maybe he would have already identified by then the inherent futility in taking the “perfect” picture, or recognized that my disappointment in the photo lay in the inherent dishonesty of photography.

Or maybe Makin and colleagues were onto something when they suggested that symmetry isn’t a necessary condition of beauty. After all, it was the imperfections and the fleeting nature of Cézanne’s fruit and Monet’s flowers that left them floating through my consciousness long after I returned to my apartment. In the end, I guess, beauty is in the eye — and the brain — of the  beholder.


Makin ADJ, Bertamini M, Jones A (2016) A gaze-driven evolutionary algorithm to study aesthetic evaluation of visual symmetry. i-Perception March-April:1-18. https://doi.org/10.1177/2041669516637432.

Aviv V (2014) What does the brain tell us about abstract art? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8:85. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00085.

Hochstein S and Ahissar M (2002) View from the top: Hierarchies and reverse hierarchies in the visual system. Neuron 36(5):791-804.

Lehrer J (2008) Paul Cézanne: The process of sight. In Proust was a neuroscientist (Reprint ed.). pp. 96-119. Mariner.

Image 1 (Lehrer, 2008)

Image 2 was taken by myself.

Louis XIV’s Crib Was Cool, But Those Flowers Though

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.

A random but greatly appreciated restaurant I came across while walking the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in the 5th Arrondissement of Paris.

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.

A map of the extensive grounds in the Palace of Versailles.

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 Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. My favorite part of the entire experience with the sunlight glittering on the chandeliers.

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.

Monet’s Chrysanthemums painting done in 1878. One of my many favorites by my favorite artist.

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+Versailles/@48.8047375,2.1106368,15z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x538fcc15f59ce8f!8m2!3d48.8048649!4d2.1203554

Image #1, #3, and #4 were taken by me

Monet and Memory

Claude Monet's "The Rue of Montorgueil in Paris. Celebration of June 30, 1878"

If you quickly glance at Claude Monet’s “The Rue Montorgueil in Paris. Celebration of June 30, 1878” as you visit the Musée d’Orsay, you can instantly recognize individual objects in this scene depicting a french celebration with crowds of people walking in the street. Look closer. The blocks of color on the flags are so blurred you may have trouble distinguishing one flag from the next. The crowds of people in the street are almost inseparable into individual persons. The typical Parisian gates on the bottom of the windows are nothing but dark blotches. Still, you can recognize these objects and people for what they are, even in a painting you have probably never seen before.

Musée d'Orsay in Paris, France

This ability has to do with a kind of memory your brain uses to identify something that you see, and it is called “object-recognition” memory (ORM) (Winters et al., 2008). Generally, the hippocampus is a brain part known to be very important in this kind of memory (Winters et al., 2008). This structure mainly houses declarative memories, such as the abilities to remember the name of the dessert that you picked up at a boulangerie or to tell taxi drivers the address you’re staying at while in Paris (Winters et al., 2008). Despite the importance of the hippocampus, it is not the only structure in the brain that houses memory. Brain structures like the orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, and cerebellum also house components of memory. Even recently, parts of the cortex that decode visual information have been found to be important in certain types of memory, like ORM (Winters et al., 2008).

The brain processes visual information in a hierarchical manner. The photoreceptors in the eye sense spots of light and send signals to other neurons in the brain that activate to increasingly specific images. An important part of this system is the area known as V2, which splits into two parts. The lower area, known as the ventral part, allows for the abilities to tell the shape of a baguette, the size of the Eiffel Tower, and the color of the bright red strawberries in the markets (López-Aranda et al., 2009). In an attempt to try to decode this part of the brain, researchers have been looking at this part of the cortex to determine which neurons do what. Certain neurons in layers of this cortex have been tested, such as the layer 3 neurons playing a part in visual processing; however, the function of layer 6 neurons in this area remained a mystery (López-Aranda et al., 2009). In a recent study, López-Aranda and associates took on the challenge of determining the function of these neurons in the 6th layer of this part of the visual cortex (López-Aranda et al., 2009). The researchers hypothesized that these neurons play a role in ORM (López-Aranda et al., 2009).

To determine the function of neurons in layer 6, López-Aranda and associates set up an experiment where rats would have the opportunity to recognize objects they had seen before (López-Aranda et al., 2009). The experimenters placed two identical objects with the rats for three minutes, then they removed the items (López-Aranda et al., 2009). Later, during testing sessions at different timepoints, the rats had the opportunity to explore one of the old items and a new item that they had never seen (López-Aranda et al., 2009). The amount of time that the rats spent around each of the objects, old and new, was measured (López-Aranda et al., 2009). If the rats spent a great deal of time around the new item and ignored the old item, the researchers concluded that the rats remembered the old item using ORM, and they would rather use their time to explore the novel item (López-Aranda et al., 2009). If the rats spent an equal amount of time around the old and the new item, then the rats did not remember the old item and spent time examining both the new and the old items (López-Aranda et al., 2009).

The normal rats were able to remember the old object for 45 minutes, but not for 60 minutes (López-Aranda et al., 2009). When the researchers inserted more RGS-14 genes, which produces a regulator of G-protein signaling protein, into layer 6 neurons of the V2 cortex three weeks before the ORM testing, the rats remembered the object for at least 24 weeks (López-Aranda et al., 2009). With more of the RGS-14 protein in these neurons, the rat’s had longer ORM (López-Aranda et al., 2009). To make sure that this ORM enhancement was unique to this combination of RGS-14 protein in the layer 6 V2 neurons, this protein was overexpressed in three other brain locations and there was no significant ORM increase (López-Aranda et al., 2009).

Further proving their point, López-Aranda and associates killed off the neurons in layer 6 of V2 with the hypothesis that this would hinder ORM (López-Aranda et al., 2009). At 45 minutes, the rats with the missing neurons did not spend more time around the new object; they couldn’t remember that they had seen the old one before (López-Aranda et al., 2009). Just to make sure that the ORM ability was unique to V2 layer 6 neurons, neurons in other structures were eliminated (López-Aranda et al., 2009). These eliminations did not change the rats’ ORM ability to remember the old object (López-Aranda et al., 2009). Based on these data showing that increased RGS-14 protein expression in layer 6 neurons of V2 increases ORM memory, and elimination of the layer 6 V2 neurons decreases ORM memory, the experimenters wondered if these neurons were important for ORM memory formation or if they were the sites where the ORM memories were stored (López-Aranda et al., 2009).

In one more experiment, rats that had increased RGS-14 protein in the layer 6 neurons of V2 were exposed to new objects (López-Aranda et al., 2009). After that, the neurons in this layer were destroyed (López-Aranda et al., 2009). The rats had some ability to recall the objects that they had previously seen, but if they were exposed to objects after the neurons were destroyed, they could not remember them at all (López-Aranda et al., 2009). This experiment shows the importance of V2 layer 6 neurons in acquiring the memory, but because the rats remembered the old objects they had seen before the neurons were destroyed, this memory could not have been stored in the V2 layer 6 neurons (López-Aranda et al., 2009). While the V2 layer 6 neurons may not house the memories that allow you to recognize objects, they are important in being able to form the memories so you can recognize the French flags and the people in Monet’s painting (López-Aranda et al., 2009).

To wrap up this post, your visual system is even more amazing than just being able to sense the brushstrokes and colors when you look at the impressionist paintings in the Musée d’Orsay. Parts of it have to do with making memories of what you have seen, so that you can apply them to your future experiences. The brain is just like the deep ocean or distant space; we are figuring it out, but so much remains unknown. This study shows that the visual system is involved with more than just processing visual information. Just like in Monet’s painting where the lines that define the objects are blurred, the functions of the visual cortex seem to be unclear as it is is implicated for other things besides vision, like ORM.

Works Cited

López-Aranda, M. F., López-Téllez, J. F., Navarro-Lobato, I., Masmudi-Martín, M., Gutiérrez, A., Khan, Z. U. (2009). Role of layer 6 of V2 visual cortex in object recognition memory. Science 325:87-89.

Winters, B. D., Saksida, L. M., Bussey, T. J. (2008). Object recognition memory: neurobiological mechanisms of encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 32:1055-1070.

Picture Citations




The Musée d'Orsay is located in the top right hand corner of this map of the 7th arrondissement in Paris

 ~ by Emily Aidan Berthiaume