Cognitive scientist explains what makes art appealing

Cognitive scientist explains what makes art appealing

You might like that painting because of evolution

Have you ever found yourself looking at a piece of art for a long time, trying to understand it? Some art isn’t easy to digest. There are various aspects of art that make pieces more recognizable, enjoyable, or appealing. Cognitive science can help explain why some art is appealing while other art is not.

Various researchers in Canada have investigated the neural correlates of how we consume art, and many conclude that evolution explains a large part of how we understand art.

Jim Davies is a cognitive scientist at Carleton University who studies what makes art appealing to individuals. He looks at why some art is easy to digest while other pieces are more confusing.

There are many aspects to why some art is more appealing to us, and a lot of it has to do with cognitive evolution. Our desire to create social relationships is a part of why we see so many faces and humans in art

“People are very interested in other people,” said Davies. “We look across all the arts, we see this big fascination with human beings and the social relationships between them.”

Incongruity in art is another reason why some pieces are more compelling to us than others. Davies explains: “We don’t like our art too simple. We like some kind of incongruity that activates a different part of our brain that drives curiosity. It’s not necessarily pleasurable, but it makes us compelled to learn more and want to see more.”

That explains why people find abstract art intriguing. Some defining features of abstract art are the fact that it’s incongruent and lacks patterns. This stimulates the art consumer’s curiosity, and they spend more time looking at abstract art.

Personality can also be part of why you like Picasso’s work more than Monet’s.

“If you have more openness to experience, you like art that is more challenging and requires a little more work to appreciate,” says Davies.

Davies is also working on a theory that can explain why some are more attracted to confusing art than others. He proposes that dopamine levels can determine whether we are more attracted to weirder art. Those with high levels of dopamine see patterns better than those with lower levels, and these people even create patterns that aren’t there. “People who are better at seeing patterns might be more favourable toward art where the patterns are hidden or more difficult to find,” he proposes.

Davies has shown that evolution can determine why we often see human faces and forms in so much of the art that we view.

Understanding aesthetics through evolution

Similarly, our brain’s way of processing aesthetic appeal can also be explained from an evolutionary perspective.

It has been thought that the brain systems we use to appreciate art are separate from the systems used to appreciate everyday objects, such as a couch or a piece of fruit.

Philosophers have long thought that humans had a separate area in the brain dedicated to the aesthetic appeal of art.

However, researcher Steven Brown from McMaster University has shown otherwise. Brown proposed that there is no single area of the brain that is dedicated to our enjoyment of art. To investigate this, he set out to collect images of subject’s brains, looking at the brain systems related to the general appraisal of aesthetics.

Brown and his colleagues surprisingly found that the same area that processes negative emotions is also stimulated when we look at art. The anterior insula processes emotions such as disgust, pain, and sadness, which makes it an unusual area for processing aesthetically pleasing art.

Brown’s findings show that from an evolutionary perspective, our appreciation for art co-opt the same systems that are used to appreciate everyday objects that humans need to survive, instead of forming new, separate areas.

Our appreciation for art lies in the same area of the brain that is used to judge whether a fruit is appealing to us when we are hungry.

Next time you’re in a museum or looking at a piece of art, try and notice why a particular piece is aesthetically pleasing or displeasing for you. Does it have patterns or incongruity? Or is it your personality that can explain why a weird painting seems so compelling? Our brains have many telling signs when it comes to why we enjoy a certain piece of art.

Image by Alora Griffiths/The Ontarion

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