Objects like Leonardo’s painting of the Mona Lisa , Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel  and Degas’s sculpture of the Little Dancer  seem to possess a universal appeal. Less famous pieces similarly work their magic on viewers. Could this be a brain thing? And if so, how did it evolve and in what ways does it (or did it) contribute to the survival of the human species?
In Is Beauty in the Brain of the Beholder  (ARTnews, January 2010), Ann Landi described what she discovered when she looked into the burgeoning field of neuroesthetics. Her interviews with several researchers highlighted an assortment of ways to approach the question of how the brain decides something is beautiful.
First, sensory input streams in through the eyes to be processed by different parts of the brain as color, form, motion and other aspects of vision. An Impressionist painting by Monet fires up the color area of the brain, a kinetic sculpture like a Calder mobile activates the motion center, a portrait by Rembrandt speaks to the face recognition part. Color registers a nanosecond before motion. The perception of beauty activates similar parts of the brain as those involved in desire. This begins to have some meaning in terms of reproduction, continuing the species. But wait, love deactivates areas of the brain. Maybe not seeing things about one’s beloved has benefits.
The brain looks for and finds patterns everywhere. Having frames of reference makes its job easier. It looks for the familiar about which it already has knowledge and experience. Not surprisingly then, ambiguity contributes to the attraction art holds by engaging this propensity of the brain to solve visual puzzles. The unfinished sketch holds a special draw for the viewer perhaps because the brain gets to participate in a way it can’t when confronted with a highly finished piece. People project onto artwork (as well as everything else) from their own expectations and ideas. The more room there is for that, the more appealing the object.
Humans evolved successfully because of their ability to bond, form groups, act in concert with others. What the next person thinks about an object can influence another’s evaluation of it. Subjects responded more positively to a painting created in the laboratory when told it belonged to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
From an emotional perspective, an esthetic experience can entail something other than looking at an object of conventional beauty. In one experiment, subjects reported being moved by objects they labeled strange and ugly, not just beautiful. The parts of the brain activated during those times are associated with the default-mode network, an area that gets busy when attention turns inward. Apparently, a truly compelling object can catapult viewers into their own internal worlds.
Recent discoveries like these intrigue and entice, but the infant field of neuroesthetics has a long way to go before it can explain what happens when the brain is on art. While most of the current research focuses on individuals’ responses, to understand human’s perception of beauty, neuroesthetics will have to range further afield and tap into other disciplines’ discoveries. Art making is, after all, a communal activity that dates back at least 31,000 years to the earliest marks on cave walls. Figuring out why and how it evolved, and uncovering the neural mechanisms that enabled it to develop, pose exciting challenges, not unlike trying to wrap one’s brain around a truly great work of art.