Brain scans reveal the power of art – The Telegraph

SCIENTIFIC STUDIES OF ART

According to a new study reported in The Telegraph in May 2011, brain scans have revealed that a work of art considered beautiful by the viewer increases blood flow in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with pleasure and desire.

John Constable, 'Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows', 1831, oil on canvas, National Gallery (London). Image from uni-bielefeld.de.

John Constable, 'Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows', 1831, oil on canvas, National Gallery (London). Image from uni-bielefeld.de.

Click here to read the article on the brain and art in its entirety on The Telegraph‘s website.

People were placed in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner and shown a series of paintings in quick succession. The “ugliest” works, by artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Honore Damier and Quentin Massys, produced small increases in blood flow while works by John Constable, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Guido Reni were considered the most “beautiful” because they led to the greatest pleasure response in the subjects.

“The blood flow increased for a beautiful painting just as it increases when you look at somebody you love,” said Professor Semir Zeki, who conducted the study at University College London.

Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 - 1516), 'The Garden of Earthly Delights', oil on wood (centre panel), 195 x 220 cm. Image from theartgallery.com.

Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 - 1516), 'The Garden of Earthly Delights', oil on wood (centre panel), 195 x 220 cm. Image from theartgallery.com.

Tests were carried out on people who had little prior knowledge of art because the scientific team did not want subjects that were “influenced by current tastes and the fashionability of the artist.”

This leads us to some challenging questions. Why does a beautiful landscape by John Constable increase blood flow and create greater pleasure than an “ugly” painting by Hieronymus Bosch? Had the viewer received art education, would this response change?

 

What makes art beautiful was the subject of a recent Intelligence Squared (IQ2) Asia debate called “Art Must Be Beautiful (part of which is shown in the video above), which was held during ART HK 11. Click here to read our interview with Simon de Pury, IQ2 debater and leading auctioneer, to find out what he thinks makes art beautiful.

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Related Topics: research, art and science collaboration

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