Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


brain-electrodes

(PHOTO: WITHGOD/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Bored by Botticelli? Hook Up the Electrodes

• November 19, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: WITHGOD/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research finds stimulating a specific part of the brain can increase appreciation of certain types of art.

Have you ever felt like an idiot walking through an art museum, frustrated that the majesty of the old masters has eluded you? Have you ever wished someone could just manipulate your brain so you could recognize greatness as you gaze upon it?

Well, roll over, Rembrandt: Newly published research suggests brain stimulation can heighten aesthetic appreciation. A team of European researchers report electronically stimulating a specific section of the brain can increase viewers’ appreciation of representational paintings and photographs.

The technique does not apply to abstract art, and most likely works only for people who haven’t been schooled in art appreciation. Nevertheless, it provides compelling evidence that, as the researchers put it, “beauty is in the brain of the beholder.”

The increased activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex seems to help people adopt “an aesthetic orientation” toward the object in question.

Writing in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, a research team led by University of Milano-Bicocca psychologist Zaira Cattaneo describes a study featuring 12 participants, none of whom had any “previous training or special interest in art.”

They watched as sets of 150 images containing a mix of abstract and figurative works flashed across their computer screen twice. On one pass, they were instructed to indicate how colorful they found each image; on the other, they indicated how much they liked each image. They completed these tasks both before and after they underwent stimulation of the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain previously shown to play a role in aesthetic judgment.

The results: The brain stimulation “resulted in a modest (around three percent) but statistically significant increase of aesthetic appreciation of representational images (both artworks and photographs),” the researchers write. “Stimulation did not affect evaluation of abstract images, suggesting that the neural mechanisms underlying appreciation of figurative and abstract images may be different, at least in individuals with no strong background in fine arts.”

Importantly, the brain stimulation did not affect judgments of color, suggesting the effect is specific to aesthetic evaluation.

This does not mean a jolt of electricity can take the place of a master’s degree in art history. Rather, the researchers suggest, the increased activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex seems to help people adopt “an aesthetic orientation” toward the object in question.

In other words, when this section of the brain is stimulated, either internally (thanks to education and training) or artificially (via electrodes on the scalp), your focus shifts from content (that’s a picture of a tree on a hillside) to context (notice the subtle interplay of shapes and shadings). As Cattaneo and her colleagues put it, viewers disengage “from a habitual mode of identifying objects to adopt an aesthetic perspective.”

So if the person standing next to you is dumbstruck by the awesome beauty of a painting, and all you see are some vaguely identifiable lily pads, perhaps a bit of brain stimulation is in order.

Who knows? Perhaps the museums of the future will equip visitors with a headset that not only provides an explanatory soundtrack, but also applies the occasional jolt to the head.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.