For those of us whose appreciation for art is simply a personal asthetic, a kind of “aha this speaks to me,” Arthur Shimamura’s article in the Oxford University Press may shed some light on how our brains experience it:
…over the past two decades, neuroimaging research has advanced our understanding of the biological bases of many mental functions to the point that it has completely revolutionized psychological science. What has become clear is that for a thorough analysis of any complex mental process, including our appreciation of art, we must characterize how neural processes interact in addition to where in the brain they occur. With respect to art, I suggest that when our sensory, conceptual, and emotional parts of our brain are all coordinated and extremely aroused—say 11 on a scale of 10—we experience that “wow” feeling, as one might have while standing in front of Michelangelo’s David or Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone.
And, although he applauds the budding intellectual fields such as “neuroaesthetics,” “neuroarthistory,” and “neurocinematics” that have cropped up, in the end, what informs our choices, Shimamura believes, is more than just a mechanical brain function.
We never experience art with naïve eyes. Rather we bring with us a set of preconceived notions in the form of our cultural background, personal knowledge, and even knowledge about art itself. In large measure, what we like is based on what we know. When we accept the fact that our art experience depends on a confluence of sensations, knowledge, and feelings, it becomes clear that there is no “art center” in the brain. Instead, when we confront art, we essentially co-opt the multitude of brain regions we use in everyday interactions with the world. Thus, with respect to “neuroaesthetics,” the question “How do we experience art?” can be simply answered as: “It’s a whole-brain issue, stupid!”