Art appreciation is considered essential to the human experience. Although the taste for art varies depending on the individual, cognitive neuroscience can provide clues to how the visualization of art affects our neural systems and assess how these systems inform our evaluation of art. For example, a study shows that looking at art activates motor areas, both in clear representations of movement, such as Adam and Eve in Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Paradise, and in movement implied by brushstrokes, as in gesture paintings by Franz Kline.
According to a recent study published in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience by researchers from Penn Center for Neuroesthetics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. They found that people with motor neurological dysfunction had decreased experiences of movement in abstract art and increased preferences for high-motion art, compared to a healthy control group.
“People can experience movement in abstract art, even without implicit movement, like brushstrokes,” says author Anjan Chatterjee, MD, professor of neurology and director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics. “These representations of movement consistently affect people’s aesthetic evaluations, whether healthy individuals or people with Parkinson’s disease.”
The study looked at the aesthetic experiences of 43 people with Parkinson’s disease and 40 controls in the same age group. Subjects made judgments of movement and aesthetics on 10 paintings by Jackson Pollock and 10 Piet Mondrian. Using seven-point Likert scales, participants rated the paintings in nine categories: Like, Beauty, Interest, Familiarity, Movement, Complexity, Balance, Color-Hue, and Color-Saturation. The color dimensions served as relatively objective control assessments.
People with Parkinson’s disease demonstrated stable and consistent preferences for abstract art, but their perception of movement in paintings was diminished compared to controls. This finding provides evidence that the brain’s motor system is involved in translating non-representative information from static visual cues in the image into representations of movement.
For example, the Mondrian paintings receiving the highest motion ratings in this study contained more visual elements, overlapping lines, repetitions, and many small areas of contrasting colors. Mondrian’s later Boogie-Woogie paintings, inspired by the New York jazz scene, are seen as dynamic and rhythmic, despite the lack of gestural brushstrokes. The sensation of movement elicited by works such as these likely results from the way these visual elements are interpreted, leading to abstract representations of movement rather than simulations of specific bodily actions. Similarly, Pollock’s paintings can be experienced as dynamic because the increasing number of overlapping colors and the way in which the paint is applied results in more repetitions, curvatures and contrasts, which are think to evoke sensations of movement.
“Our findings are particularly important because previously it was postulated that looking at abstract art stimulated the motor system because people could imagine the gestures the artist was making while painting,” says lead author Stacey Humphries, PhD. , postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Neurology. “But our research shows that even without these representations of movement, the motor system can interpret static visual cues as movement and, in turn, impact the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation.”
Movement effects cannot be attributed solely to greater complexity in higher movement paintings. The researchers found no significant difference in the complexity ratings or the relationship between complexity and art taste given by patients and controls.
The researchers note that the patients participated while taking their usual medications. One factor that has yet to be considered is the effect dopaminergic drugs might have on aesthetic experiences. Dopamine plays an important role in the normal functioning of the brain’s reward system, which is consequently disrupted in Parkinson’s disease.
The fundamental idea of the study is that the brain’s ability to construct abstract representations of movement influences aesthetic experiences of art.
Humphries S, Rick J, Weintraub D, Chatterjee A. Movement in aesthetic experiences: What we can learn from Parkinson’s disease. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Published online March 31, 2021:1-14. do I:10.1162/jocn_a_01718
This article has been republished from material provided by the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. Note: Material may have been edited for length and content. For more information, please contact the quoted source.