I Like What I Like: The Science of Art Appreciation

art, cherub,

The appreciation of art has commonly been thought of as highly personable and illogical. Research, however, suggests that the appreciation of art may be as open to the laws of science as the eyes that perceive it.

Dr K.Lindell of La Trobe University, Australia, and Dr Mueller of the University of Vienna, Austria, have collated research investigating the psychology behind visual art in,
” Can science account for taste? Psychological insights into art appreciation,” published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology.

Breaking down the experience of viewing art by “bottom up” and “top down” variables, the paper explores the influence of variables on a viewer’s preference examining the extent to which psychological research can account for art appreciation.

“Bottom up” variables of art that had an impact on the viewer included abstraction, form, complexity and symmetry.

“Top-down” influences included artwork, novelty, and viewer expertise.


The collation of studies investigating the psychology of art found that bottom up and top down variables reliably influenced a viewer’s preference. In studies that used fMRI imaging of the brain, regions involved in reward and emotion were seen to be highly active when viewing art that was considered as aesthetically pleasing.

  • viewers favoured representational over abstract artworks, and these were seen to activate reward regions in the brain
  • activation in the occitipital gyri and the left cingulate sulcus – regions involved in the evaluation of emotive stimuli i,.e, pictures
    and faces, were seen to increase in activity in direct correlation with aesthetic preference.
  • activation in the right cauduate nucleus – part of the brain linked with reward-based behavioural learning, decreased in direct correlation with a viewer’s decreasing art preference
  • paintings considered “beautiful” stimulated two areas; the anterior cingulate and left parietal cortex – regions involved in pleasurable emotional states and the activation of the orbitofrontal cortex – an area involved in the perception of rewarding stimuli.

The findings go towards explaining the popular distaste for modern art. Lost in translation, abstract art has a low level of representation – a significant “bottom up” variable which affects the viewer’s experience. The challenge of interpreting a piece of modern art can overwhelm the viewer, and when meaning is lost, aesthetic pleasure is reduced.

Few studies have attempted before to establish a connection between the brain and the aesthetic experience. The research suggests that there would be an increased understanding gained in the experience of being human from further study.  Dr K Lindell, lead researcher, comments:

By establishing the commonalities between viewing artworks and other pleasing stimuli, researchers could potentially unwrap what distinguishes an ‘‘aesthetic experience’’ from a straightforward pleasurable experience. In doing so, further light may be shed on the cortical basis of aesthetics.”


View the ten greatest works of art –  http://www.biographyonline.net/artists/10-greatest-works-art.html

Journal of Cognitive Psychology: Can science account for taste? Psychological insights into art appreciation

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