Nora Young, host of CBC radio's Spark, recently interviewed Italian Neurologist Zaira Cattaneo on her research involving brain stimulation and art appreciation. As Cattaneo explained, 12 subjects who had no art background were shown a mix of abstract and figurative art and asked to quickly make a decision on whether or not they liked it. They were asked to rate how much they liked/disliked the piece on a scale.
The volunteers were then subjected to 20 minutes of brain stimulation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (some received a placebo stimulation) while they watched a cartoon movie with few cognitive demands. They were again shown a different, but similar set of artworks and asked to rate the art.
The result? After brain stimulation the volunteers had a greater appreciation of representational / figurative art than prior to the stimulation, but not for the abstract pieces.
While the study raises interesting questions for further research (does the brain look for meaning - relationships to known objects - in abstract art? Is there a neurological explanation for why some people appreciate art more than others?), it also suggests potential avenues for non-pharmaceutical treatment of depression. If this kind of treatment can get people to experience more joy out of what they see (or how about hear, feel?), could it be an eventual cure?