What is it about art that draws our attention so much? Why is it considered the highest form of human activity? Neurologists deconstruct art into its bare elements, explaining how it affects us and how these elements ignite certain mechanisms in our brain.

Boaz Mizrahi May 12, 2020

In 1954, the Nobel-laureate in ornithology, Nikolaas Tinbergen, conducted an experiment where he observed seagull hatchling. He noticed that the chicks would peck their parents’ beaks to ask for food, using the characteristic red mark of adult seagulls to “focus on the target”. As the Nobel committee stated in this award announcement, Tinbergen found that when the young seagulls were exposed to a long and narrow stick marked with three lines at the end, they would peck it more than they would their parents’ beaks. He concluded that a stronger stimulus can impact behavior, changing the natural behavioral paths that are hardwired in our brains.

From our perspective, the chicks may seem somewhat foolish to fall for such a simple visual manipulation, but before passing judgement about their faculties perhaps we should consider the case from a broader perspective. It seems people are also easily be subjected to the similar types of visual manipulation, and even more so – we enjoy them, and are intellectually stimulated by them, causing us to work harder so we can be exposed to them. These types of stimuli are the most fundamental part of art. And if you are drawn to some form of art, from music to theater or dance, you are in fact experiencing a mix of maneuvers that are ultimately intentional, creating these manipulations that are executed by the hand of the artist, and they impact the electric circuitry in your brans in the most remarkable way.

In the 90s, a new research field became trendy, called Neuroaesthetics. It focuses on the way art influences the brain. Today, with advanced technologies made more readily available to us, such as the fMRI scanners used in parallel with older modalities such as EEG, this research field is bubbling with activity and insight. The Washington Post launched a unique production that explores the world of neuroaesthetics from the viewpoint of ballet, illustrating key points through a combination of video and animation of a performance by the NY City Ballet. In this initiative, Sarah L. Kaufman explains what happens when we are exposed to an art performance as audience, and how the experience influences our brain activity, both as individuals and as a group, and why it excites us so, causing us to fall in love with art.

Art exploits specific patterns, to which the brain has developed a sensitivity of survival

“Having a great time at the theater defies logic in many ways. We’re surrounded by strangers, bombarded with unusual images and often faced with a wordless language of symbols”, Kaufman says. And yet, for most of us, the impact of a live performance is part of a much larger event, bigger than our private lives. Despite the fact the art elicits feelings that touch on our spirit, soul, and heart, the mechanism responsible for igniting these feelings is in our brain, often times even in its analytical areas.

The effect of an artform like ballet, for example, begins even before the curtains go up, when people arrive and gather together as audience to watch. Our brain is hardwired to identify and even imitate all the gestures and feelings exhibited by the people around us. This is especially accentuated in a performance environment, where there are accepted social norms and expectations. “The cues we get from those around us help our brains make sense of our surroundings”, Kaufman explains. On the other hand, when we are alone in the audience, and watch a performance that is radical or strange, we may feel quite vulnerable. The Washington Post initiative is narrated, explaining that the presence of so many people together supplies our bran with much sensory stimuli. Being part of a social gathering ignites areas in our brain, which are responsible for figuring out feelings and facial expressions of all those around us. Their emotions and movements switch on our mirroring neurons, a system that helps us align our behavior with those around us, so we sit comfortably when the lights are dimmed, or clap our hands to applaud along with everyone else. This process creates an emotional soundbox that enhances the feelings shared by the audience, and spreads it between all the individual spectators in it.

Showing up and being part of the crowd is a type of foreplay, preparing everyone ahead of the actual performance. By the time the brain is exposed to the artwork itself, it is already very active and in an advanced state of anticipation. Social connections, Kuafman says, are critical for the artistic experience. “With our brain’s capacity for emotion and empathy, even in the wordless art of dance we can begin to discover meaning — and a story”. And that is the crux of it all. A story is a complex message passed from one person’s mind to another’s. The technical means by which the story is built – in case of ballet, it is the choreography, the set and props, and the music – serve much like the extreme manipulation and stimuli that caused the seagull chicks to pick away at colored sticks as they would their parents’ beak. For us, these manipulations ignite emotional and sensory stimuli leading us into a catharsis. As Kaufman describes in the case of Swan Lake, “We can empathize with what the characters go through without suffering the full force of fresh heartbreak”. This is how, among other things, an aesthetic experience is made possible.

Next, Kaufman delves deeper into the practical and concrete experience of the work of art. She deconstructs the artistic elements, and storyline manipulation, and explains their influence on the brain. In dance for example, movement is naturally the dominant element. Our brain, she explains, is very alert to movement, from larger movements of limbs to the fine motor control of facial expressions. She explains that the reason for this alertness is survival instinct, and artists who build a story are able to use this in order to lead our mind into the desired state of excitation. In ballet performances, the dancers’ movements draw us into their conscious state. That is how, for example, our empathizing response to a dancer’s whirl may make us feel as if we are flying. Furthermore, we are even able to map a sequence of movements and experience them as a unifying, rich, and profound emotion, as if we were combining several words into a sentence.

Kaufman shares a research that showed how different types of movements can induce a wide range of emotions. “Soft, round and open body shapes elicited positive feelings”, she says, while “edgy body shapes triggered negative emotions”. A Japanese design firm demonstrated this visually, by using an illustration technique called rotoscoping, which identifies the location of objects in space during movement. Using sensors, the company’s team followed the movements of a ballerina, and recorded the information mathematically, Then, they translated it into animation, which presents the geometric shapes the dancer created following the choreography.

The spectator adds his personal history to the interpretation – and in this way become an active participant in the artwork

Another technical element is singling out one element, and this “helps the brain block other sensory information and focus attention”. It simplifies any idea, leaving-in only the necessary fundamentals. In ballet, we would see this in a solo dance, bit these principles are general patters that the human brain is sensitive to, and are true in any culture. That’s why isolating and singling-out is a common technique, applied also in photography, painting, music, and many other artistic fields. This is also true to all the other elements. Much like singling out, contrast in aimed at emphasizing something. “The brain detects boundaries best when the edges are distinct”, Kaufman explains. For this reason, the dancers in Swan Lake wear black or white. There are other elements, such as using metaphors and aligning the music with the movements, which also elicit certain reactions in our brain. And this is how our neurological experience is bombarded all at once, covering numerous areas of our to create a multi-dimensional stimulus, which also extends beyond the personal experience of an individual since they are part of an audience and are interacting with similar explosions happening all around them in the crowd. Scientists think that this intense mental activity is at the core of the pleasure we draw from artwork.

While the Washington Post’s production demonstrates, through ballet, the shared experience happening at the same place and time, Dr. Bill Griesar, a psychologist from Portland University, explains the spectator’s autobiographical standpoint. In the video of the Portland Museum of Art, he points at one portrait from the museum’s collection, and explains, “The shape of his head, or the color of his skin, or the cut of his hair, things like that may also, based on your own past experience, provoke certain sorts of emotional responses”. This means, that in addition to the experience of being present in the moment, your history and memory also play a subconscious role, and form another layer that plays into the whole experience.

The artist Jeff Lieake adds to Griesar, saying that methods of abstraction had peaked not only in abstract art but also in artistic movements such as impressionism, which isn’t entirely abstract. Lieake talks of a painting by Claude Monet, where visual clues were eliminated purposefully, such as the horizon line, and different elements were blurred intentionally, to captivate our brain as it tries to decipher the image it sees. Our brain is programmed to draw meaning, and when it is required to work a bit harder (well, not too hard) we often find the effort gratifying. We can view this as a method nature ‘exploits’ uses to encourage us to learn. But going back to ballet for a moment, when a language of symbols is used, like body movement or costumes, we get the same effect – they lead us to devote ourselves to deciphering the story.

Both Lieake and Griesar, claim that once we figure out a specific element in an artwork, it is hard for us not to see it that way anymore. Every time we go back to the artwork, the part we are clear with will immediately stand out yo us, no longer riddling us. And that is how, as they explain, “you can develop a relationship with a particular work of abstract art”. At the same time, the painting continues to allure you, because there are parts of it that you haven’t yet figured out. This is how, every time you return to it, it changes and evolves, at least in the way our brain perceives it.

We challenge our brain with the high standards, using conscious manipulation

An article in The Scientist by Prof. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist from Pen University, Takes us deeper into the crevices of our brain, and into the way art impacts our spatial-visual perception. Like Griesar and Lieake, Chatterjee explains his point using a painting by Monet, exploring the way the artist hid the horizon line. He introduces two visual methods of analysis that interact together: the ‘What?’ stream and the ‘Where’ stream. He explains that “form and color are processed in the ‘What’ stream, revealing an object’s identity. Luminance and motion are processed in the ‘Where’ stream, which reveals an object’s location.” Chatterjee explains that in Monet’s impressionist painting Sunrise, which depicts the sun rising over a body of water, the horizon and the water are drawn using different colors, yet rendered with equal clarity. This means that the viewer’s brain receives information about the identity of the objects, but none about their location. This is how the artist created the flickering effect of the sun over the water. These are pretty advanced techniques, and this little taste of how they work is just the top edge of the rabbit’s whole.

Chatterjee then moves on to makes the plot even more complicated. He says that perhaps certain areas in the brain responsible for deciphering visual signals, also take part in evaluating their aesthetic level. This is how a beautiful face, for example, would excite the visual perception more than a face that is not beautiful. We saw a hint of this in the ballet, when the music and dancers’ movements synchronized, creating a more aesthetically pleasing experience. But these are just tinges and hints. “Functional neuroimaging experiments dissecting our emotional systems during aesthetic experiences are starting to reveal neural correlates”, Chatterjee explains. In other words, it seems there is some sort of alignment somewhere, or correlation, between our visual perception and our aesthetic taste.

This complex system of neural activity ignites parts of the brain, which are also associated with the feelings of pleasure and reward. This is just one side of the enjoyment, Chatterjee claims. Another aspect, is an artist’s ability to communicate emotions effectively. “Art transmits subtle emotions that are difficult to convey with words”, he says, “for example, the delicate sadness evoked by masks worn in the classical Japanese musical theater called Noh”. He adds that the context of the artwork, as well as the intention of the artist, are both significantly instrumental for figuring-out the artwork and its influence on our brain. The prestige and level of the work play the same role too.

At some stage, it seems that intensive artistic experiences activate almost every possible electric circuit in our brain, and this is just as far as know today. The strange thing is, that all of this is in fact a ‘scam’ built carefully around thousands of years of knowledge and technological developments. It is an intentional, conscious scam – a game the brain likes to play that sparks stimuli and hyper activity artificially. As opposed to the seagull chicks, we are aware that what we see is an illusion, and even understand how this illusion works.

In some odd way that contradicts intuition, many would agree that being aware of these scams and their cognitive mechanisms actually amplifies the artistic experience, enriching it so it be even more profound. It’s as if our brain is signaling to us, “routine life is just too simple for me. Please, challenge me”.

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