Our Brains May Respond to Art We Love in the Same Way, Small Study Suggests

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Participating in artistic experiences—either as a producer or a consumer—has been a universal human activity throughout history. We all consume or participate in art through one medium or another. And while there's no accounting for taste (yet), a new, small study found that however wildly divergent its participants' individual aesthetic preferences were, their brains reacted to art that moves them in a similar way.

Scientists at NYU recruited 16 observers to view and rate 109 images from the Catalog of Art Museum Images Online database ranging in style and origin. While an fMRI machine took scans of their brains, participants were asked to rate each of the artworks on a scale from 1 to 4 based on the following prompt:

Imagine that the images you see are of paintings that may be acquired by a museum of fine art. The curator needs to know which paintings are the most aesthetically pleasing based on how strongly you as an individual respond to them. Your job is to give your gut-level response, based on how much you find the painting beautiful, compelling, or powerful. Note: The paintings may cover the entire range from “beautiful” to “strange” or even “ugly.” Respond on the basis of how much this image “moves” you. What is most important is for you to indicate what works you find powerful, pleasing, or profound.

The participants were also asked to rate the same works of art on a scale of 1 to 7 for how strongly it elicited in them each of the following emotions: joy, pleasure, sadness, confusion, awe, fear, disgust, beauty, and the sublime. Researchers classified a strong response to any emotion—positive or negative—as a participant having been "moved" by a work of art.

Although preferences for which works of art were moving varied wildly among the participants, their mental activity, as reflected by whole-brain maps, was similar for works of art they had an intense reaction to. This activity appeared among "a set of posterior, anterior, and subcortical brain regions that were correlated with observers' aesthetic recommendations," the team writes in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

In participants' brains, the most moving artworks led to a selective activation of central nodes of the default mode network (DMN), a specific set of brain regions that are active when the brain is at wakeful rest. The DMN is associated with inward contemplation and self-assessment.

"The most moving artworks also activate a number of other frontal and subcortical regions, including several which reflect the evaluative and emotional dimensions of aesthetic experiences," the researchers write.

Scientists are now eager to learn more about what caused humans to evolve this propensity to experience an emotional reaction to art and which characteristics of aesthetic experience move us.