Why do humans EVEN like art?
If humans sole purpose is to eat, sleep, and produce more humans, art does absolutely nothing to accomplish those goals… or does it?
Introducing day one of Neuro Bureau fashion week, where instead of models we have news stories and instead of clothes we have facts! Yes, we are dishing out why humans have created a fashion week in the first place… because of the brain.
The question I hope to answer today is why we LIKE art. Art is worth millions to billions of dollars, which to many makes absolutely no sense. Why do we place a tremendous amount of value on some paint and a canvas?
This question stems from the field of Neuroaesthetics, or the study of why things are aesthetically pleasing.
In order to understand Neuroaesthetics, try to imagine this: a dark, rich, and gooey piece of chocolate cake. Taste how sweet the chocolate is, smell it, bite it. Got the image in your head? Great!
Well, when you think of that cake, the same areas of your brain light up as when you think of art.
Our interpretation of an object, such as chocolate cake, stems from the anterior insula and orbitofrontal cortex of our brain.
Let’s break this down into simple terms.
The anterior insula (AI) is responsible for awareness, in particular, the connection between external and internal experiences. When you think of that chocolate, the AI is helping you imagine the experience whether or not you are eating cake.
Also, having higher activation levels in the AI not only helps imagine that cake better, but it lets you be more socially adept. When testing emotional intelligence, scientists discovered that those with higher scores had higher levels of activity in the left insula. This meant they were better able to access and read other people’s emotions based on their facial expressions. This is because they were able to imagine the people (internal experience) as if it were a real-life experience (external experience).
Additionally, the orbitofrontal cortex handles decision making. The classic line of “to be or not the be” probably was said because the orbitofrontal cortex was activated. Plus, this area of your brain is activated by smell, touch, and taste which is how it relates to that cake.
So, these two areas of your brain – the anterior insula and orbitofrontal cortex are activated when you see cake AND art. Wait, why?
Once again, this answer leads back to evolutionary reasons, no surprise there! Your brain appraises objects, such as cake or art because they have a biological benefit to you. Salivating while thinking of cake? Your brain is just noticing the sugar that would have helped your ancestors fuel their hunting, long walks, and life.
So, I am sorry Picasso, there is no part of our brain tasked with praising artwork. Sadly, the reason we love art is also the reason we love food – because it is not a threat to our survival.
So, while you are going about your day, have some cake! Life is too short to live without a slice of dessert.