Is The Beauty of a Sculpture in the Brain of the Beholder?

From an article by Cinzia Di Dio, Emiliano Macaluso, and Giacomo Rizzolatti



Is there an objective biological basis for the experience of beauty in
art? Or is aesthetic experience entirely subjective? This question has
been addressed in a paper published in this week's PLoS ONE, Cinzia Di
Dio, Emiliano Macaluso and Giacomo Rizzolatti. The researchers used
fMRI scans to study the neural activity in subjects with no knowledge
of art criticism, who were shown images of Classical and Renaissance
sculptures.



The 'objective' perspective was examined by contrasting images of
Classical and Renaissance sculptures of canonical proportions, with
images of the same sculptures whose proportions were altered to create
a comparable degraded aesthetic value. In terms of brain activations,
this comparison showed that the presence of the "golden ratio" in the
original material activated specific sets of cortical neurons as well
as (crucially) the insula, a structure mediating emotions. This
response was particularly apparent when participants were only required
to observe the stimuli; that is, when the brain reacted most
spontaneously to the images presented.



The 'subjective' perspective was evaluated by contrasting beautiful vs.
ugly sculptures, this time as judged by each participant who decided
whether or not the sculpture was aesthetic. The images judged to be
beautiful selectively activated the right amygdala, a structure that
responds to learned incoming information laden with emotional value.



These results indicate that, in observers naïve to art criticism, the
sense of beauty is mediated by two non-mutually exclusive processes:
one is based on a joint activation of sets of cortical neurons,
triggered by parameters intrinsic to the stimuli, and the insula
(objective beauty); the other is based on the activation of the
amygdala, driven by one's own emotional experiences (subjective
beauty). The researchers conclude that both objective and subjective
factors intervene in determining our appreciation of an artwork.



The history of art is replete with the constant tension between
objective values and subjective judgments. This tension is deepened
when artists discover new aesthetic parameters that may appeal for
various reasons, be they related to our biological heritage, or simply
to fashion or novelty. Still, the central question remains: when the
fashion and novelty expire, could their work ever become a permanent
patrimony of humankind without a resonance induced by some biologically
inherent parameters?



To read the entire article and see the actual images that served as test objects, go to:

http://www.plosone.org/doi/pone.0001201