Deconstructing the Human Brain: Art Perception

Neuroaesthetics is “the conversation between art and neuroscience” (Hutton)

When we read a literary text we have to ‘read between the lines’ or in Hemingway’s terms, uncover the ice that’s drifting below the water. Most English literature classes practice the excruciating ‘art’ of close reading, which entails speculating the author’s intent behind the implementation of a certain literary device and the desired effect(s) it is supposed to produce. Parallels to this close reading process can be seen in a branch of academia titled neuroaesthetics. As the name suggests, neuroaesthetics is a combination of art and neuroscience and seeks to explain why art forms such as music, dance, literature, film, etc. impinge on us the way they do–those studying neuroaesthetics ultimately seek to discover why our favorite song or K-pop dance move evokes an adrenaline rush through our bloodstreams.

According to an article in the The Beautiful Brain, which you can view here, there are two theories regarding human perception of art. The bottom-top flow postulates that sensory inputs perceived by our 5 senses (6 or more for cyborgs) are processed in the cerebral cortex; on the other hand the top-bottom flow hypothesizes that human expectation, which stems from memories and past experiences, masks our perception of an object or piece of art.

To quote from the article, I am fascinated with how the human brain analyzes “basic aesthetic details”; the way art impinges on us rests on an amalgamation of fear, pleasure, disgust, and problem solving (thrill)– sensations that we feel when different parts of our brain are stirred through the emission of specific chemicals. But even more so than the chemical composition of our brains, the individualized systems of perception rivet my interest.

Why do people have different musical tastes? Why do I have a penchant for minimalist writing, when my self-study partner regards David Foster Wallace as the apotheosis of essay writing? These unique individual preferences must stem from somewhere–I suspect the differences to lie in the “architecture of the brain” as Hutton nicely puts it.

Until I get my hands on one of Dan Levitin’s books I will be content with contemplating–vaguely, as I’m not a neuroscientist–about the science of aesthetic appeal.

Work Cited:

Hutton, Noah. “Art and Neuroscience: a State of the Union.” thebeautifulbrain.com. The Beautiful Brain. 9 Sept. 2012. Web. 25 Sept 2014.

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