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Bored by Botticelli? Hook Up the Electrodes

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