The Brain and Art: Oshin Vartanian on Current Neuroaesthetic Research

Have you ever wondered why humans are drawn to art? After all, we've been creating visual art for at least 30,000 years. But why do we do this? Why is appreciating the beauty in art such an inherently human act? And yet some people react quite differently to the same piece of art than others. Why? Why is art important?

Dr. Oshin Vartanian

Dr. Oshin Vartanian

It is with these questions I approached Oshin Vartanian, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. Professor Vartanian received his PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Maine. He is the Editor of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts and past Editor of Empirical Studies of the Arts. His co-edited volumes include “Neuroaesthetics” (Baywood Publishing Company), “Neuroscience of creativity” (The MIT Press), “Neuroscience of decision making” (Psychology Press), and most recently “The Cambridge handbook of the neuroscience of creativity” (Cambridge University Press). His main areas of interest include the cognitive and neural bases of aesthetics and creativity.


Q. A few years ago you discovered that quite a few areas of the brain are activated when someone looks at art: the parts of the brain involved in visual representation, object representation, as well as parts involved in processing emotion; parts that activate our pleasure and reward systems; and even the area associated with daydreaming and memory - a much deeper level of processing.

In 2018, how has this research evolved? Any surprises?


OV: I would say that compared to just a few years ago, we have improved our understanding of the neural bases of aesthetic experiences in two ways.

First, most early studies had focused on aesthetic episodes that involved mildly pleasurable experiences, such as viewing pleasant paintings and listening to enjoyable music. Recently there has been strong theoretical and empirical interest in understanding the nature of aesthetic experiences that are driven by negative emotions.


For example, there have been studies of aesthetic experiences associated with sad poems, and viewing visual images that depict sorrow. This work is important because experientially we know that a lot of art associated with negative emotions can be quite enjoyable (e.g., reading sad literature), but we don’t yet have a good grasp of the mechanisms that make this experience possible. In this sense research that investigates this issue is a welcome addition to the literature.

Second, the palette of neuroaesthetics has broadened considerably beyond paintings and music to include studies of architecture and beautiful mathematical formulae, among others. This added breadth is also welcome because ultimately we would like to understand aesthetic experiences not just in the arts, but across all domains in which they occur.

Q. You observed that people with no art training or experience generally tended to prefer representational (realistic) art, whereas people with more art experience tended to lean towards abstract. You posited that this difference was likely driven by neurological differences. Has your research identified additional differences?

OV: It is very interesting that you should ask this question.

Although research in empirical aesthetics and neuroaesthetics has frequently highlighted behavioural and neural differences between experts and non-experts in many domains, the reasons underlying those observed differences are not really well understood. For example, we know that when viewing paintings, people with training in the visual arts attend more closely to the compositional features of the artworks (e.g., structural organization of the objects in the paintings) whereas those with no training attend more to its superficial features (e.g., colours).

It is typically argued that formal training is the reason behind such differences. However, we don’t know what specific aspects of formal training make the difference in how paintings are visually scanned. In this sense we are in grave need of better mechanistic models of how expertise brings about the observed differences. In other words, we have an effect that is in need of an explanation.

Q. Recent research by Nielsen and Mullins challenged the idea that realistic art is better in hospitals than abstract art. They discovered that art was a generator of well-being in the hospital environment regardless of whether the art was figurative or abstract. Does your own research suggest that being in an environment with art vs. one without art leads to a better sense of well-being?

OV: There is indeed research to show that being in the presence of art can lead to a sense of well-being. Although we have not tested this relationship ourselves, I would speculate that whether exposure to a specific type of art does or does not lead to a sense of well-being would be a function of many factors such as the personality and personal preferences of the viewer, and the context within which the art is perceived. In other words, although it is safe to say that exposure to art can lead to a sense of well-being and experience of positive affect, at this point in time I wouldn’t make strong inferences about which type of art would be better suited to achieve that end point.

Q. You note that people who have personalities more “open to new experiences” tend to appreciate art more. But if the reaction to art is a complex brain process which in many ways happens instinctively in the positive areas of the brain, would it not stand to reason that everyone would benefit from being exposed to art?

OV: The difference is really a matter of degree than kind. Specifically, the personality trait openness to experience is defined as “the breadth, depth, originality, and complexity of an individual’s experiential life.” It is true that people who score higher on this trait seek out artistic and aesthetic activities more often than those who score lower on this trial, which makes sense given the description of the trait. However, it is certainly not the case that people who score lower on this trial do not seek artistic and aesthetic activities at all. They just tend to do so less often.

Q. You have noted that older brains are less able to focus as intensively as younger brains, and the advantage to this allows you to notice unusual things - intrusions - that potentially pave the way toward novel, creative ideas. Do you think this applies when considering viewing art, and not just creating it? Does the way you appreciate art change as you age?

Photo by  Eddy Klaus  on  Unsplash

Photo by Eddy Klaus on Unsplash

OV: The inability of older people to block out irrelevant information likely affects a broad spectrum of behaviours, including their interaction with artworks. However, this is just a speculation on my part because we currently know very little about the effect of the ageing process on how people appreciate and experience artworks, including whether susceptibility to intrusion is present during viewing art. That would be a fascinating question to study actually, because if true then it would be likely have a bearing on their aesthetic experiences.   

Q. Your research observed a predilection by research participants for curvilinear architecture, consistent with the research that curvilinear formats are preferred over rectilinear for geometric forms, household objects, furniture, and even car interiors. Do you think this also holds true for fine art - that people will tend to gravitate toward more organic, curving subjects than angular art? Any hypotheses why the preference for curvilinear?

OV: Our preference for curvilinear forms has proven to be a very general phenomenon, present in infants, adults, and even great apes! It is present for real object, imaginary objects, architecture, car interiors, etc. In our own research we have shown that when people view two-dimensional black-and-white shapes (randomly generated irregular polygons and arrays of circles and hexagons), they continue to prefer curved forms. However, I’m not aware of published studies in which fine art specifically has been systematically manipulated to be more or less angular.  Interestingly, research has shown that part of the reason why people prefer curved forms is that they seem more “natural" than angular forms, so that’s certainly a hypothesis worth exploring further.

Q. How has your research affected your own relationship with art? Do you have art in your home? Office? Do you visit galleries?

OV: Yes, I do have art at home and in my office, and I make a point of visiting art galleries as much as possible wherever I go. Invariably questions that I focus on in my research affect the way I view art, but I also try to keep an open mind and appreciate things for what they are. That also allows you to be surprised and to notice things you hadn’t expected before, which is great for getting to think in new ways about art. 

Q. From a neuroaesthetic’s perspective, what advice would you give to someone who is trying to introduce more art into their life, maybe buying their first piece of original art?

OV: That’s a hard question to answer precisely because we know that tastes in art vary greatly across people, and are influenced by everything from culture and society all the way down to personality. My advice would be to cast a wide net and to explore as many different types of art as possible. In my own case my personal tastes have changed greatly over the years, and I would have never known that had I not kept exploring new art forms over the years. Also, visit pieces that you like again over time. It’s amazing how artworks that you thought you knew so well can reveal new aspects after repeated interactions.

The Conversation, c. 1911, Henri Matisse

The Conversation, c. 1911, Henri Matisse

Q. If you could own any piece of art in the world, what would it be?

OV: Almost any piece by Van Gogh or Matisse—the former for the feelings they evoke and the latter for their colours and forms.

Q. Thank you for your insight.

OV: I found your questions very thought-provoking and they prompted me to think about my work in a deeper way. Thank you!