Humans like art. We like seeing art, we like hearing art, and we like making art. But why? As it turns out, humans may be biologically predisposed to appreciate art, which may explain why we are so in love with it.
An extended study conducted at the University of Toronto details how art affects brain activity.1 When one examines a piece of artwork, the shape, color, and orientation are processed by the visual center of the brain. However, art also stimulates the brain’s anterior temporal lobe, a region of the brain involved in logical thinking and understanding function. Furthermore, brain scans revealed activity in the posterior cingulate cortex, a portion of the brain associated with inner thoughts and emotions. In other words, art simultaneously affects our senses, our thoughts, and our emotions.2 Enjoying art is a natural process of the human brain that organically triggers specific feelings and interpretations. Evolution caused humans to behave in certain ways when viewing specific patterns; for example, German researchers found that the color green heightens creativity and motivation (time to decorate my dorm room in green!).3
Additionally, humans have historically been drawn to the “golden rectangle” - removing a square from the golden rectangle yields another golden rectangle, and so on. The golden rectangle provides the basis for some of the most acclaimed designs or structures ever made: the Parthenon and Notre Dame, the face of the “Mona Lisa,” and the Stradivarius violin. In 2009, a Duke University professor demonstrated that our eyes scan an image fastest when it has the dimensions of a golden rectangle; biologically, humans are already predisposed to favoring the golden rectangle, no matter how aesthetically pleasing the shape may be.3
While evidence from the natural sciences indicates why humans enjoy art, social scientists (such as psychologists and sociologists) posit additional theories. Art stimulates physiological responses, such as the changes in brain chemistry mentioned earlier, but may spark psychological reactions as well.4 Art exposes its audience to a realm of new ideas, concepts, and ideologies. It can establish a connection between the viewer and the artist, or make the audience feel like a part of something larger.5 Art offers us an escape and allows us to experience things without risk of pain or failure. Thus art is universal; it transcends cultural divisions and transmits the same message to diverse groups of people. And, of course, art is just aesthetically pleasing.
Ultimately, art is a celebration of human achievements.4 It is both a luxury and a reward, a product of higher thinking and a representation of our most primal emotions. Even though it may already be on display, every art piece is incomplete. When we enjoy art, whether due to biological or psychological reasons, we extend beyond the medium with which it’s created and transform the piece into something intangible, yet beautiful.
Jenny Ren is a sophomore from Jones College at Rice University.
Vartanian O.; Skov M. Neural correlates of viewing paintings: evidence from a quantitative meta-analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging data. Brain Cogn 2014, 87, 52-56.
Nunes, A. Science suggests humans are biologically wired to like art. http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/en_au/blog/science-suggests-art-is-biologically-important (accessed 1/15/16), part of The CreatorsProject.
Hosey, L. Why we love beautiful things. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/opinion/sunday/why-we-love-beautiful-things.html (accessed 1/15/16), part of The New York Times.
Why do we appreciate art? http://silenteloquence.suryaonline.org/2005/02/22/why-do-we-appreciate-art/ (accessed 1/15/16), part of Silent Eloquence.
Why do we like art? https://www.quora.com/Why-do-we-like-art (accessed 1/15/16), part of Quora.