American Association: Perception - The art critic in all our heads

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PEOPLE ENJOY works of art because they appeal to a primitive part of the brain that searches for a simpler view of the world.

Neurologists trying to explain why paintings and sculpture are a source of pleasure have discovered that artists unwittingly exploit a tendency of the brain to see the abstract side of the world.

A primitive region of the brain, called the limbic system, tries to capture the basic essence of an object by eliminating extraneous information and amplifying features that make a form unique, scientists told the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Vilayanur Ramachandran, of the University of California, San Diego, said that in some abstract art, artists are subconsciously discovering some of the rules the brain uses to discover form.

"They are artificially heightening that activity into pictures."

The 18th-century painter Francois Boucher exaggerated a woman's skin tones by making flesh far pinker than it is naturally.

Sculptors in 9th-century India amplified the female form by exaggerating breasts and hips while making the waist unnaturally narrow. "The point of art is not to copy a woman or a landscape but to capture the very essence: not just to capture it but to amplify it and distort it, thereby hitting your limbic system with more.

"That's what artists are doing, titillating the visual pathways more optimally than you could with a real object," said the professor.

"What you are doing is taking a woman's form, subtracting the form of an average male and amplifying the difference, and of course you end up with women with big breasts and big hips. But the limbic system likes that."

The phenomenon is well known to behavioural scientists, who find that when rats are taught to associate a rectangle with food, they find longer and narrower rectangles more exciting, Professor Ramachandran said.

"It may not be a coincidence that the ability of the artists to abstract the essential features of an image and discard redundant information is essentially identical to what the visual areas themselves have evolved to do. You can learn about the brain by studying art."

Patrick Cavanagh, a brain researcher at Harvard, said the fondness of artists for line drawings is based on nerve cells that are built to register dark against light, which results in the identification of a line. "Line drawings are a large part of art history and current art production but there are no lines around objects in the world. There is nothing at all in our experience that would let us learn about how lines should be used in line drawings.

"If you go into the physiology you do find cells that seem to do that. We know that artists discovered this long ago."