Neuroaesthetics. How does our brain perceive art?

ARTLIFE ACADEMY
4 min readFeb 19, 2021
ARTLIFE FEST 2020

To influence viewers artists need to consider the structure of the human brain and its processes. Let’s figure out how everything works and what to look for to be understood from the point of view of neurophysiology.

All paths lead to the brain. It used to be believed that the beauty of an image depends on the proportions of the golden ratio. Now it turns out that this is not enough, that the brain is more complex. Aesthetic feeling arises as a combination of psychophysiological, neurophysiological and neurochemical processes in the brain.

Neuroaesthetics is a science at the intersection of cognitive psychology, neurobiology and aesthetics, which appeared in 2002. Its goal is to understand how the brain perceives artworks and what beauty is from a scientific point of view.

What happens in the brain when we look at a painting?

ARTLIFE FEST 2020

The brain is looking for a whole, and it collects this whole from separate pieces. The brain enjoys when it manages to solve the “problem” and collect a single picture from disparate elements. So this is the one key of our understanding of art.

The another key is called mirror neurons. They associate what they see with the motor response of the brain. These neurons are activated both when we act, and when someone else does it. We adopt someone else’s experience at the brain level. And art is a form of fantasy visualization. It activates the same parts of the brain as real events.

The mechanism of human vision is very much like a printer, and the work of the brain is like a computer. At the level of the retina, humans have four points, four colors — red, blue, green and gray. The visual image is perceived as a collection of these points. The retina sends information about what it sees “pixel by pixel” to the brain. Our host “computer” then puts it all together, forming a whole image.

It goes from the eye to the brain through several processing steps. One of them is the thalamus. Here, the contrast and boundaries of dark and light areas are adjusted in the image seen.

In the primary visual cortex of the brain, which is located at the back of the head, there are neurons of a certain type. They respond to short straight lines at different angles.

In front is the secondary visual cortex. Here we recognize more complex images, and here volumetric vision appears — what is seen with the left and right eyes is compared. Also, faces are recognized at this stage. Further, the visual signal makes its way to the same mirror neurons. They, in turn, define emotion.

So, using this information, we can form some points, which can help make your art stronger.

Make painting like a puzzle

The human brain is delighted when it manages to solve a riddle. In our case, when it is possible to assemble an integral image from chaotically scattered elements at first glance. This trick works great with Impressionism.

Exaggerate. Our brain likes it!

Artists exaggerate some of the features, making them more explicit. The receptive fields of human neurons respond more actively to the exaggerated irritant.

Work on contrast

The brain is aimed at looking for the whole in disparate elements or finding hidden images, guessing them by individual features. With the help of contrast, we visually separate objects from the background, outline the edges and boundaries and focus on the main objects. Also, it is the lines that are recognized by the neurons in the primary cortex. Moreover, the contrast can be not only in color but in textures or light and shadows too.

Direct the viewer’s attention, but not too obvious

The artist not only exaggerates some elements of the painting but also separates (“isolates”) those objects to which the viewer should pay attention. This makes it easier for the brain — it quickly understands what to focus on, and this enhances the emotional response. At the same time, when the idea is expressed directly, and the object is depicted clearly, interest falls. It is much more pleasant to guess the object.

Use rhythm and symmetry

If there is rhythm, then there is a certain order. This means that you can predict what will happen next. And this gives us a sense of calmness and security. Symmetry also brings aesthetic pleasure. But (paradoxically) the excessive symmetry is alarming. As it was said in the previous paragraph — a person does not like coincidences that he cannot explain. A lot of things in nature are proportional — except for small errors. So a work of art should be like this — to delight the brain and appear beautiful.

ARTLIFE FEST 2020

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