Art on the brain: Can science really explain our taste?

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It was 1st week, Michaelmas Term, 2019. Laid out before me was a collection of art from Balliol JCR’s picture fund, I was about to pick one to hang in my room for the following year. I pondered over them briefly before selecting an abstract piece with swirls of red, purple and pink representing nothing in particular. Why was it that I chose that painting rather than a traditional countryside scene, or a picturesque cityscape of Oxford?

Special Area – Ian Henderson
(Referenced above)

Can our brains explain our taste in art?

The philosophical study of aesthetic judgement has been around for hundreds of years with Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement being especially influential, but now some scientists are beginning to uncover the thought process behind these decisions.

Kiyohito Iigaya and his team from the California Institute of Technology have recently released a paper on the pre-publication server bioRxiv which proposes a potential pathway for how the brain responds to and interprets art. In-lab and online participants were presented with a set of paintings from four different art genres: Cubism, Impressionism, Abstract and, Colour Fields. Participants were then asked to rate a particular piece on how much they liked it.

In order to classify each piece of art in more detail, a model was suggested in which each piece consists of features that can be classified as low-level or high-level. Low-level features such as brightness, contrast and the size of the largest segment can be determined from pure computational analysis. High-level features such as how dynamic the picture is, and whether it evokes a positive or negative emotion were determined by a panel of art experts. It was hypothesised that we construct subjective value from how much an image expresses a particular feature, and that variations in taste can be accounted for by the relative importance individuals assign to each feature. This model proved successful as it was able to predict, with surprising accuracy, which styles of art a person preferred.  

But when we look at an art piece, does our subconscious actually break it down into these high and low-level features? To answer this question, the team used a set of algorithms known as a deep neural network. Inspired by biology, neural networks simulate how the human brain responds to stimuli and learns from past experiences. It was found that the assumptions of the original model spontaneously emerged from the neural network which only had the knowledge of average ratings, bringing us a step closer to understanding how our brains interpret an image.

Finally, the team tested their hypothesis on human volunteers who were asked to complete an art rating task whilst their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner. It was found that the brain responds to low-level features first, and high-level features were represented more prominently further down the visual stream. This hierarchy shows that the objective features of an image form the basis of our tastes hinting at a universal criterion for aesthetics.

Does society influence our preferences?

It goes without saying that a person’s aesthetic valuations do not occur in a vacuum. A review of behavioural studies by Stephan E. Palmer and others at the University of California, Berkeley describes how a range of external factors can also affect how we perceive visual stimuli. In colour preference studies, it was found that adult men tended to prefer more saturated, intense colours than adult women. However, these gender differences were absent for young children suggesting that societal expectations can influence an individual’s personal taste.  Some cultures also show strong preference for some colours over others. For example, in a survey of British and Chinese volunteers, the Chinese participants showed a stronger preference for the colour red, perhaps reflecting how the colour represents joy and good fortune in Chinese culture.

There has even been a study, published recently in 2018, which showed that those who voted leave in the EU referendum were more likely to prefer “realistic” art and dislike more abstract pieces of art. The proposition that whether or not you supported Brexit is an indication of your art taste may seem ridiculous, but the leave/remain divide encompasses a wide range of sociological differences like the old vs. the young, the socially conservative vs. the socially liberal, and the wealthy vs. the poor. It was shown that education level was a strong indication of taste with 53% of those with no educational qualifications showing a high preference for realistic art compared to 30% of those with a university degree.

Can there be art that everyone finds beautiful?

It can also be argued that there is an innate, universal element among humans as to what we find aesthetically pleasing. You’ve probably heard of the golden ratio; it appears in nature, for example describing a person’s height relative to their arm span. It has also been replicated in highly acclaimed pieces of art such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The ecological valence theory proposes that we like the colour blue due to its positive connotations with clear skies and clean water and that we dislike brown as we associate it with faeces and rotting food. Iigaya’s study from the beginning of this article also managed to group its participants into three clusters depending on which features of a piece of art they deemed most important in aesthetic valuation. One cluster, which places a strong emphasis on concreteness, which means preferring scenery and impressionism, was dominant making up 78% of the study’s participants. This allowed them to be able to predict, with reasonable accuracy, a person’s preferences using a more generic model rather than one trained specifically on that person.

No scientist has yet claimed to have completely revealed what exactly goes on in our heads when we look at a piece of art. Whilst Iigaya’s study has elucidated a possible mechanism as to how we extract features from an image, it cannot be denied that there are many factors at play and a purely genetic explanation would ignore that. Our experiences and surroundings form the lens through which we see the world, why would the way we see art be any different?

Examples of art styles sourced from