Friday, January 28, 2011

This Is Your Brain on Art

V. S. Ramachandran, who visits the Writers Institute on Monday, January 31st at 4:15PM, is one of the key figures of the new science of "Neuroaesthetics," which seeks to understand what the mind finds pleasing about art.

In 2009, Psychology Today devoted an article to the subject which also features a list of "10 Perceptual Principles of Great Art." According to Ramachandran, these principles came to him while he happened to be visiting a Hindu temple during a sabbatical in India, an experience he recounted on BBC4 Radio in 2003.

"Attempts to define art are nothing new. But Ramachandran is seeking to define it from the perspective of the brain, and he's in the midst of a brain-imaging experiment he believes will help. Subjects lie in an fMRI machine and view examples of kitsch—art objects ridiculed for their shallowness or sentimentality—as well as fine art, like the canvases that hang in museums. A Christmas lawn ornament of Santa Claus might be juxtaposed with a Michelangelo sculpture; an image from a Hallmark card might be compared to a Rembrandt painting. By measuring brain activity, Ramachandran hopes to find out why visual stimuli that seem so superficially similar can generate such different aesthetic reactions."

"The interesting thing about kitsch is that it often looks like art," explains Ramachandran. "But it's not art, because it doesn't trigger the same intensity of feeling." He suggests that while kitsch often relies on the same tricks as great art—universal principles such as the peak-shift effect and the peekaboo principle—these tricks aren't as well executed. "Anybody can learn these visual rules," he says. "But you still need talent and training in order to turn them into fine art."