The Biology of Beauty

By Kriston Capps, Johns Hopkins Health Review — Spring/Summer 2016

In a marriage of science and art, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute are helping advance the study of neuroaesthetics, an emerging field that seeks to understand why we find meaning in art, dance, music, and architecture.

Illustrations by Brian Stauffer

Understanding the neurobiological foundations for aesthetic experience is at the root of a burgeoning discipline known as neuroaesthetics. The field applies cutting-edge science to age-old questions about our human interest in the arts, and it has emerged within the last 20 years as technological advances in imaging and noninvasive brain stimulation have made it easier to peer inside the human mind.

Three years ago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York assembled a show to reconsider the origins of modernism in visual art. Inventing Abstraction: 1910–1925 was a blockbuster, one that traced the roots of the avant-garde through Paris, Berlin, Moscow, New York, and beyond. The exhibition promoted, among others, the work of Jean Arp, whose smooth, biomorphic sculptures had helped launch the Dada movement. Arp’s work gained new prominence in MoMA’s treatment, proving that the artist’s signature arcs and swooping curves still resonate with contemporary audiences.

A different kind of advance in the study of abstraction came a few years prior. In 2010, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute announced a collaboration that would focus on Arp’s sculpture. MBI was founded in 1994 to study and understand neural activity in the brain and how it gives rise to mental phenomena. With this collaboration, the goal wasn’t just to confirm that Arp’s work appeals to people but rather to understand why.

In a two-part experiment, curators and neuroscientists set out to measure how subjects responded to different shapes, using Arp’s work as a model. The researchers created 3-D scans of Arp’s sculptures, which enabled them to enlarge and elongate the curves and shapes and create new “sculptures” for comparison. In the first experiment, subjects used 3-D glasses to view the images and pick their favorites. The second experiment asked a different set of participants to look at the same scans while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner.

When exposed to the soft bends and arcs of Arp’s 1939 Leaf of the Pyramids ca. 5000, the subjects’ brains responded with more heightened activity in the lateral occipital complex, a region of the visual cortex where the brain processes shapes, than they did with scans of sharper shapes.

What the researchers learned was that people enjoyed Arp — no surprise there — but more to the point, they discovered that Arp’s sculpture uses surface curvature that people found especially pleasing. When exposed to the soft bends and arcs of Arp’s 1939 Leaf of the Pyramids ca. 5000, the subjects’ brains responded with more heightened activity in the lateral occipital complex, a region of the visual cortex where the brain processes shapes, than they did with scans of sharper shapes. Arp’s work was inspiring at the neural level.

“The things that people said they liked better visually were things that drove the most activity in the visual cortex. These are things that the visual cortex seems to have developed or evolved to process,” says Ed Connor, director of the Mind/Brain Institute, who led the study. Connor focuses on the visual cortex with the hope of better understanding the neural activity evoked when humans encounter a beautiful sculpture or painting.

Understanding the neurobiological foundations for aesthetic experience is at the root of a burgeoning discipline known as neuroaesthetics. The field applies cutting-edge science to age-old questions about our human interest in the arts, and it has emerged within the last 20 years as technological advances in imaging and noninvasive brain stimulation have made it easier to peer inside the human mind. What’s the appeal of a Picasso or the magic of a Monet? Why does a particular piece of architecture or music inspire, but another does not?

Why we appreciate the arts — and how that manifests inside the brain — is now an interdisciplinary question that stretches across medicine and the humanities. “One of the great questions of philosophy is understanding the relationship between the mind and the body,” Connor says. “Aesthetics touches on the pinnacle of subjective experience, something that we have spent centuries trying to explain. Neuroscience may have something valuable to add to the discussion, since our aesthetic reaction originates in the brain.”

Advancing research in neuroaesthetics isn’t limited to the visual arts, according to Susan Magsamen, a senior adviser to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s Brain Science Institute. BSi is a cross-disciplinary institute pulling expertise from medicine, science, and the humanities. In 2010, the institute convened a global summit called The Science of the Arts. They brought together neuroscientists, artists, musicians, architects, and more to share emerging research around the biological and neurobiological underpinnings for aesthetic experience. “The field of neuroaesthetics, depending on your interest and how you enter it, can go from studying love to studying film and architecture,” Magsamen explains.

“For centuries, philosophers have speculated on the links between perception, beauty, creativity, and pleasure, and in recent years, scientists have learned a great deal about sensory systems.”

The former director of BSi, the late John Griffin, conceived of the conference to help spark a dialogue about the myriad ways beauty informs human experience. “The artifacts of early man suggest that our ancestors were moved by images, forms, sounds, and movements, and in a world of subsistence, put effort and resources into their art,” Griffin said in 2010 when announcing the program. “For centuries, philosophers have speculated on the links between perception, beauty, creativity, and pleasure, and in recent years, scientists have learned a great deal about sensory systems.”

One participant in the conference was Charles Limb, then a Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist and surgeon who is also an accomplished saxophonist. Limb had become curious about what happens inside the minds of musicians when they play. How, for instance, did John Coltrane improvise for hours on stage? In 2008, Limb put jazz pianists on their backs in an fMRI and gave them a customized 35-key MIDI synthesizer to play. Limb then watched what happened in their brains as they jammed. When the jazz players improvised, Limb found that the activity in the part of the prefrontal cortex associated with self-monitoring went down, while activity rose in the prefrontal cortex area associated with self-expression. Players lost their inhibitions and became more creative.

Illustrations by Brian Stauffer

Learning how a jazz player’s mind works, or how much curvature is too much curvature in a modernist sculpture, offers a glimpse into what it means for our minds to take pleasure in art. It is an attempt to glean the biological and neurobiological foundations for a seemingly subjective experience.

In his research, which was funded by BSi, Connor hopes to help illuminate how our brain registers and understands objects. “One of the striking things about our visual capabilities is that we can see anything,” Connor says. “Not just familiar things but unfamiliar things. That’s a testament to a system that actually produces a meaningful geometric representation of anything we see, even if it’s very novel, even if it violates all our expectations based on previous experience.”

This work happens, Connor says, in the ventral pathway of the visual cortex, the part of the brain that translates information received by the eye into objects perceived by the mind. That process is still mysterious, but scientists are piecing together information about how the brain does this work. How do neuron signals represent fragments of an object, and how does an ensemble of these signals result in a coherent image of an object? How do we see a white ball with black pentagons and register it in our mind as a soccer ball, for instance?

Johns Hopkins and the Walters chose Arp for their experiment because the artist’s work is abstract. A representational image — say, a scan of that soccer ball — would not work in the same experiment, since distorting that image would violate the mind’s rules about what a soccer ball is supposed to look like. Distorted scans of an abstract sculpture, on the other hand, can still look plausibly like abstract sculpture. What Connor and his team discovered is that different people tended to appreciate the same types of shapes. When measuring the brain responses of viewers under an fMRI as they looked at the images, they found that participants especially disliked those showing narrow cylinders or sharp points.

People believe their relationship with art to be an intimate aspect of their identities, and some bristle at the idea that their taste in sculpture might be determined for them at the neurological level. The brain is ultimately so complex, Connor says, the mind so rich, for scientists ever to arrive at simple neurological prescriptions for what makes art matter — to eliminate subjectivity, as it were — is not the aim.

One of the big questions in neuroaesthetics concerns the way we understand art emotionally. Does the brain process painting, dance, music, and other aesthetic genres through the same rewards system, or do different domains generate their own rewards? Answers to how the brain builds images into an understanding of art are still emerging. The analytical methods for explaining neural phenomena are still being developed.

Still, the ability to measure the human reaction to aesthetics and to map it in the brain may reveal quantifiable benefits for education, medicine, and therapy. This is why, in April of last year, BSi announced the launch of a new NeuroAesthetics Initiative, a global collaboration of scientists and organizations meant to support interdisciplinary research, with the goal of turning that research into real-world solutions. “We’re interested in the range of human emotion that falls under aesthetic experience, including beauty,” says Magsamen, who is the executive director of the initiative. Understanding the biology of aesthetics, she says, could have pragmatic applications for designing a classroom that encourages learning or a hospital that spurs even greater healing. “How can you create optimal environments for health, for peace of mind, for inspiration?” she says.

“One of the striking things about our visual capabilities is that we can see anything. Not just familiar things but unfamiliar things. That’s a testament to a system that actually produces a meaningful geometric representation of anything we see, even if it’s very novel, even if it violates all our expectations based on previous experience.”

By creating this collaboration with diverse disciplines — architecture, technology, the arts, education, and health and wellness — and using research and discussion, the NeuroAesthetics Initiative hopes to encourage new questions and approaches for understanding how the brain sciences might support, for example, the design of the spaces we use.

Neuroaesthetics currently faces the challenge of being a young field, and Magsamen says efforts are now being made to standardize the work that bridges the different practices and disciplines under its umbrella. Also, it isn’t currently recognized as a field for funding by the National Institutes of Health, a situation that Magsamen and her team hope to help change.

In the meantime, Connor and his team continue to research neuroaesthetics, this time with a study examining how the brain processes large-scale shapes in the environment, such as buildings. “We hope that the new work could lead toward exploring the neural basis of architectural aesthetics,” Connor says.

The goal of neuroaesthetic research is not to totally demystify the human aesthetic experience, according to Connor. He notes that people believe their relationship with art to be an intimate aspect of their identities, and some bristle at the idea that their taste in sculpture might be determined for them at the neurological level. The brain is ultimately so complex, Connor says, the mind so rich, for scientists ever to arrive at simple neurological prescriptions for what makes art matter — to eliminate subjectivity, as it were — is not the aim. “One of the ultimate goals of neuroscience is to understand the mind, understand the material basis of thought, of our sense of self. The basis for our consciousness,” Connor says. “I think of neuroaesthetics as adding more to neuroscience than it does to aesthetics. Aesthetics is just one of the most interesting and sublime aspects of conscious experience.”

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