Study reveals why we find some art more beautiful than others

When contemplating the subjective nature of expression, everyone loves to cite Kipling’s The Conundrum of the Workshop, specifically the bit where Adam is shamed for reveling in his dirt doodle by the devil’s sharp: “It’s pretty but is it art?”

Then there’s that great Picasso story where his friend presents him with his own painting, but Picasso insists it’s a fake. So the same friend brings Picasso a different Picasso from a different source only for Picasso to again declare it to be a fake. Finally, the friend reveals a painting that he had watched Picasso paint with his own eyes, but for the third time Picasso said it was a fake, exclaiming: “I can paint a false Picasso’s as well as anybody.”

The moral of both attempts to say that there is no meaningful way to objectively appraise beauty in a work of art and to try is to miss the point of the experience. The another’s man trash idiom is true in a philosophical sense, but according to a new study there are observable functions that categorically determine what we deem pleasing to the eye-a “universal code” that states beauty is, more accurately,  in the unique neurological patterns of the beholder.

The Default Mode Network

It was the German Psychiatrist Hans Berger that first devised an effective method of recording brain activity.  His pioneering work led to what we know call The Default Mode Network. DMN governs a wide array of neurological functions, some autobiographical like prioritizing memories. some empathic like properly assessing the emotions of others,  and some distinctly metaphysical, like determining what images are deserving of our rapture.

“We don’t know yet if DMN actually computes this representation,” explained Edward Vessel of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Germany and leader of the researchers behind the new study. “But it clearly has access to abstract information about whether we find an experience aesthetically appealing or not.”

Using Functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers found that heightened activity in the brain occurred uniquely between participants based on the visuals they were observing, especially in the DMN. The report expounds, “Within the default mode network, regions of the brain that are typically active during inward contemplation, the images that people reported as aesthetically appealing led to remarkably similar patterns of brain activity across art, buildings, and landscapes. This suggests the default mode network, or DMN, may contain a universal code for aesthetic appeal.”

The new study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was co-authored by Edward A. Vessel, Ayse Ilkay Isik, Amy M. Belfi, Jonathan L. Stahl, and Gabrielle Starr.