Can't Figure Out Art? A Zap To The Brain Will Help You Like It

It doesn't work for abstract art, though. You're on your own there.

Art Appreciation

The Amateurs, Honoré Daumier via Wikimedia Commons

Stumped trying to look sophisticated at a museum? New research suggests that a little electrical zap to your brain could help you appreciate fine art more.

A study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that the experience of viewing art can be made more enjoyable by activating the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). A group of 12 volunteers rated paintings and photos depicting real-world situations more highly after a current was delivered through electrodes to that region of the brain, which has been implicated in the regulation of emotion. As previous studies have found, a little zap can be a powerful thing: Electrical stimulation to the scalp has been shown to improve people's math abilities and video game skills.

"The effect of stimulation was subtle, but still pretty remarkable considering the participants were basically just putting a battery on their head," neurologist Anjan Chatterjee told _New Scientist _about this study. Chatterjee suggests that perhaps activating this region of the brain improves your mood, making the experience of viewing artwork more enjoyable. In this study, the brain stimulation only enhanced viewers' appreciation of realistic art, not abstract works, which indicates that the process of viewing abstract art might involve different areas of the brain.

Tiny though the sample might be, this gives us a new look at some of the neural structure underlying our aesthetic judgements. Neuroaesthetics, the still-young field of studying aesthetic beauty through neuroscience, aims to get to the bottom of how the brain determines something is beautiful. Yet researchers' attempts to quantify why we like art remains a bit controversial. The headline on one Nature column earlier this year declared that "neuroaesthetics is killing your soul." In an essay on the subject in PLOS Biology, Bevil Conway and Alexander Rehding wrote that "the equation (art = beauty) rests on shaky ground. Throughout history, artists have created deeply moving artwork that is emphatically not beautiful."

But figuring out why how we experience beauty could have practical implications. Zaira Cattaneo, the study's lead author, hopes that this research will one day help treat people with anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure.