Researchers from Japan’s Oita University have found that aesthetic appreciation of paintings may be linked to altering activities in specific areas of the brain. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 39 people were taken as they looked at slides of still life and landscape paintings by 19th-century French painters and slides of photographs that closely replicated the paintings.
While the subjects considered both the paintings and the photographic analogs to be beautiful during the experiment—with no significant differences between them—the most beautiful paintings were rated significantly higher than their corresponding photographic analogs in the pre-experimental phase. The researchers cite this as evidence of feeling greater pleasure from the paintings.
The MRIs showed that during the experiment, portions of the brain’s frontal lobe related to emotions, memory, learning and decision making were activated. However, when the researchers compared the positive effects of aesthetic appreciation of the art paintings versus the photographs, they noted significantly more activity at the back of the subjects’ brains, specifically the bilateral cuneus, a part of the occipital lobe responsible for basic visual processing; and the left lingual gyrus, or ridge, associated with vision, encoding visual memory, logical ordering and dreaming. The findings suggested that these neural structures are associated with the aesthetic appreciation for paintings.