A gallery at the Harvard Art Museums.
A gallery at the Harvard Art Museums. By Hayoung Hwang

Beauty and the Brain: The Emerging Field of Neuroaesthetics

Neuroaesthetics, an innovative but controversial new area of neuroscience research, has the potential to help us understand the ways our brain responds to art. But some remain skeptical of how much science can really tell us about aesthetic experiences. The Crimson surveys the state of the field on campus and beyond.
By Faith A. Pak and Ethan B. Reichsman

Leo Tolstoy’s classic 1897 polemic “What Is Art?” may be a surprising first reading for a neuroscience class, but surprises like this are par for the course in MBB 980N: “Neuroaesthetics.” Taught by Nancy L. Etcoff, Assistant Clinical Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, the class investigates the possibilities of applying the science of the brain to the study of art. Neuroaesthetics as a discipline is a very new field of research, only recently gaining momentum in both the artistic and scientific communities. Some are none too happy with this development, and this burgeoning area of study is already under fire.

Bridging the Arts and Sciences

Etcoff, however, sees great untapped potential in bringing different disciplines into conversation. Her class is a prime example of interdisciplinarity, attracting students from a range of departments and schools, including Neurobiology, History of Art and Architecture, Psychology, English, and the Graduate School of Design.

Dr. Nancy L. Etcoff, a professor bringing new research in neuroaesthetics to Harvard.
Dr. Nancy L. Etcoff, a professor bringing new research in neuroaesthetics to Harvard. By Hayoung Hwang

Theodora T. Mautz ’19, a Neurobiology concentrator, echoed Etcoff on the value of crossing disciplines. “It’s a really cool merging of many interests of mine—neuroscience, art, social interaction. We are learning about the neural mechanisms behind the appreciation of art. It makes you think about art from a more biological and evolutionary standpoint,” she said.

“The class is extremely interesting—conversations go in new, novel directions that challenge everyone’s way of thinking,” said Harrison D. Phelps ’19, a Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology concentrator in the class. “Professor Etcoff also allows students to lead many of the discussions, allowing for more freedom and exploration.”

Although she made her name as a scientist, Etcoff has firm roots in the arts and humanities. She started off in college studying comparative literature and dreamed of becoming a novelist. She soon switched her major to psychology because she found that it was addressing many of the same questions she was asking in literature about emotions and motivations.

Aesthetics is a topic traditionally claimed by the humanities, especially by philosophy and art history. “It’s just one of those questions that science has shied away from, because it didn’t seem answerable or even definable,” Etcoff said. But with the innovations of technology in recent decades, such as fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), that can give a concrete picture of what is going on in the brain, scientists are increasingly able to peer into realms of the human experience that were once thought to be totally abstract and intangible.

“The question of beauty is something that science has shied away from,” Etcoff said. “It didn’t seem answerable or definable. Happiness is another one. There are a lot of books on negative emotions like disgust, fear, anger.” But Etcoff is interested in expanding the scope of science to the pleasures in life, like the appreciation of art and beauty, and positive emotions like happiness, calm, gratitude, awe, relief. As the director of the Program in Aesthetics and Well-Being at Massachusetts General Hospital, she is working to create more beautiful hospital spaces to aid patients in recovery. She also teaches the science of happiness in a freshman seminar.

She is currently studying how flowers may decrease stress levels and improve focus and attention—and they do. Why? Etcoff uses evolutionary theory to explain. “We know that although flowers have little practical use, they have powerful effects on people’s behavior and feelings,” Etcoff said. “People give flowers for forgiveness, at funerals, to celebrate. They provide solace, joy, forgiveness, compassion. Looking back on evolution, flowers might have signalled that the environment was positive for human habitation. And so it makes sense that they lower stress levels.”

“Beauty is one of life’s basic pleasures,” Etcoff said. “We want to keep near us, feel more sympathy and compassion for, and are elevated and enriched by what is beautiful.”

Art is particularly fascinating to Etcoff because the emotions it arouses in people are so complicated. “Back when I was in graduate school,” Etcoff said, “we would look at emotions as moving along axes from positive to negative, with a clear distinction between the two. But people often say they are ‘moved’ by art. People often enjoy, for example, a sad movie. Why would people ever voluntarily seek out sadness?”

Etcoff says it has to do with the activation of two systems in the brain that are normally separate. This simultaneous activation happens when people feel “moved” by art. While the person’s focus is directed at a specific external stimulus (the artwork), the default mode network, which is normally active when attention is not directed at a stimulus, and consists of “mind wandering” and involves thoughts about the self, memory, and future, is also activated. In other words, art arouses an extremely complex whole-brain response that brings into play many usually disparate aspects of the mind.

“It may explain why those feelings are difficult to articulate and yet are so profound,” Etcoff said.

The Beauty Spot

Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroaesthetics at University College London, a pioneer in the field. With the help of neuroimaging technology, he has discovered that there is an area of the brain called the medial orbital frontal cortex that always “lights up,” or correlates with the perception of beauty, whether it is in response to visual, musical, mathematical, or even moral beauty. Although each type of experience activates different combinations of areas in the brain, the overlap always occurs in the medial orbital frontal cortex.

“Philosophers have always spoken of beauty in the abstract,” Zeki said. “Clive Bell, an English art critic, once said, ‘If you can tell me everything that aesthetic experiences have in common you will have answered the question of aesthetics.’ No art historian or critic or philosopher has been able to solve this problem, but we have in a limited biological context, namely that we know that aesthetic experience correlates with activity in medial orbital frontal cortex regardless of its source.”

Gian Lorenzo Bernini's bozzetti, or sculptural sketches, on view in the Harvard Art Museums.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini's bozzetti, or sculptural sketches, on view in the Harvard Art Museums. By Hayoung Hwang

Can the experience of beauty finally be quantified?

“The answer is yes—activity in the medial prefrontal cortex is stronger when you think something is more beautiful,” said Zeki.

But what about the subjectivity of art appreciation? Don’t some people find things beautiful that others find ugly?

Zeki is well aware of the fact that people often find more beauty in an artwork the more they are exposed to it. For this reason, he rarely studies the brains of accomplished artists themselves. “When you talk and write and study art, you must not ever discuss it with artists or musicians or historians of art or philosophers because they know too much,” Zeki said. “We are studying it at a simple elemental level—ordinary person’s perceptions. I’m interested in basic function and organization of the brain.”

He divides the perception of beauty into biologically and culturally inherited. “Now you take a beautiful woman from Japan. The chances are high that she will be very beautiful in England. And people of all cultures find young babies very beautiful. A Muslim may think a mosque is more beautiful than a Catholic cathedral because it has accrued more meaning for him, but that’s a culturally inherited trait, not biologically. But a beautiful woman is beautiful wherever you go.”

Most of the opposition to Zeki’s pioneering efforts have been from art historians and philosophers, rather than from practicing artists. “Artists are in a sense neuroscientists who are exploring common questions,” Zeki said. He believes art theorists simply feel threatened by this new information that will shake up their traditional ways of thinking about aesthetics. “You will never have a complete theory of aesthetics unless you take account of the organ through which you have the aesthetic experience,” Zeki said.

A Burgeoning Field

To illustrate just how recently neuroaesthetics has gained traction as a serious field of inquiry, consider Ina Kodra ’18: as a sophomore, Kodra attempted to declare a special concentration in neuroaesthetics, but her request was denied. At the time, such a plan of study included too many disparate elements to be properly called a concentration. Now, just a few years later, students like Kodra are welcome to push the boundaries between art and science.

Although neuroaesthetics is taking off in the scientific community, it has had a harder time making inroads into the world of art. One major exception to this trend is Tedi E. Asher, the neuroscientist in residence at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. Her two-year position is funded by a grant from the Barr Foundation, a Boston-based nonprofit that supports research into a variety of fields, including the arts.

“The main goal of the neuroscience initiative at PEM is basically to enhance visitor engagement,” Asher said. “So, to create experiences within the galleries that are more meaningful to our visitors, and engage them more fully in taking in the artwork.” Six months into her new role, Asher said it is too early to say that she’s made any discoveries yet, but she has been working on finding ways to apply existing neuroscience literature to the museum environment.

One concept Asher has been exploring is the notion of salience. As she explained it, “When an element in a scene or in an image stands out from the background—so it could be a different color, it could be a different shape, it could be moving in a different direction than the rest of the scene—those elements are said to have salience.” Building on that idea, Asher is working on creating “saliency maps,” which illustrate the parts of an image most likely to draw attention. By understanding how visitors to the museum actually look at art, Asher hopes to make the pieces in PEM easier to navigate and appreciate.

Although PEM is the first museum to hire a neuroscientist in residence, other institutions have explored the artistic potential of scientific research. The Tate Britain, a museum in London, presented an exhibition in 2015 called the Tate Sensorium. Recognizing that sight is only one of the senses, the museum paired four paintings from its collection with a variety of tastes, smells, sounds, and haptic sensations. As part of the exhibit, visitors wore specialized wristbands to measure their perspiration, used as an indication of their excitement. In this way, the Tate attempted to use the latest in scientific and technological research to aid in the appreciation of art and to measure its effect.

One of the Impressionism galleries at the Harvard Art Museums.
One of the Impressionism galleries at the Harvard Art Museums. By Hayoung Hwang

Museums and galleries like the Tate and PEM may among the first to incorporate the findings of neuroscience into their exhibitions, but they are almost certainly not the last. As neuroaesthetics takes off, and more attention and research is devoted to it, the line between art and science may become increasingly blurred. Although Zeki and Etcoff may see this as a positive development, not all are quite so rosy about this prospect.

Saying No to Art?

Having discussed neuroscience, and neuroaesthetics in particular, in the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and on NPR, R. Alva Noë is one of the most vocal critics of those fields. Noë received a PhD at Harvard in 1995 and is now a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He warns against seeking to combine these seemingly separate areas of thought without careful consideration. First, however, he wants to make one thing clear: “I am pro-neuroscience.” For Noë, any attempt to achieve greater understanding of ourselves is beneficial. However, he pointed out, “I think we’re a long way from having adequately understood ourselves in neuroscientific terms alone.”

Among Noë’s main concerns, therefore, is to make sure that researchers remain humble about the actual ability of neuroscience to understand the processes that underpin human cognition. Noë argues that neuroaesthetics takes both too broad and too narrow a view of art and beauty. On the one hand, neuroaestheticians talk about how the structure of the brain determines our range of available aesthetic experiences: for instance, we rely on our color vision to appreciate a painting. “Merely to point out that we need color vision to experience colorful paintings says no more than that we need color vision to see anything,” Noë said. He argues that such a view is too broad to be of use in attempting to define such complex experiences. “That's part of the reason that the aesthetic is a valuable category, precisely that it is undecided, but it's a domain that we talk about,” he said.

On the other hand, Noë feels that art is treated too narrowly, as a kind of neural stimulus. In this view, art “triggers an effect in us, and that effect in us is the aesthetic experience, so then you can ask, ‘Well, what happens in the brain when you have this aesthetic experience?’” In Noë’s mind, this is the wrong, or at least a less interesting approach. Instead, he prefers “to think of aesthetic experiences as better thought of as engagement on our part with the opportunities thrown up by a work of art.” For Noë, what we bring to a piece of art is as important as what the art gives to us.

Noë is not alone in his critiques. Even those involved in neuroaesthetics have their doubts about its promise. Despite her efforts to apply her neuroscientific background to the world of art, Asher said, “I think understanding art, or deriving meaning from art is such a holistic experience, I think to try and reduce it down to down to a set of mechanisms might be oversimplifying it.” That being said, of course, she believes the field has the potential to bear fruit. Or, as Noë put it, “I don't want to say no to neuroscience. My concern is that neuroscience says no to art.”

Dissecting the Frog

An old saying goes that explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. It’s not very interesting, and the frog dies. Do we have anything to fear from this new and exciting branch of science? Will the application of cold, rational science to the free-flowing world of art end up with art in the position of the proverbial frog? All those involved, on every side, seem to agree that this is nothing to worry about. Advocates like Zeki and Etcoff see neuroaesthetics as a whole new way to look at art, full of unexpected and interesting applications. Noë, for his part, thinks they haven’t come close enough to understanding art to damage it.

Perhaps Asher summed it up best when she said, “Generally I think that the more we can understand about ourselves, the deeper appreciation we’ll be able to have for all experiences.”

—Staff writer Faith A. Pak can be reached at faith.pak@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Ethan B. Reichsman can be reached at ethan.reichsman@thecrimson.com.

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