The emerging field of neuroaesthetics is looking to find the answer to one of humanity’s millennial questions: the meaning of beauty. Born between the crossroad of empirical aesthetics and neuroscience, this emerging discipline is seeking to understand how human brains perceive beauty across different spectrums.
We're taught that beauty is entirely subjective. Fully dependent on each individual's point of view, past experiences, fleeting emotions, and rancidness of the oranges eaten at breakfast. But can neuroscience prove it otherwise? Can beauty be quantified and objectified? Can we use technology to precisely measure it? I believe we’re soon to find out.
Where humankind's greatest ideas are born...in the bathroom
Marcel Duchamp, AKA Robert Mutt, was an artist far ahead of his time. Back in 1917, at the peak of artistic audacity and defiance, he decided to submit a piece for the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists that would radically shift the tectonic plates of art as we knew it.
In the past, Duchamp took on various attempts to vindicate the public perception of artistic beauty. He denied big collaboration opportunities with other renowned artists—one of them being the very Henri Matisse. He coined Matisse's art as "retinal", meant to please nothing but the eye. Instead, he wanted art to serve the mind.
With that in mind, his entry for the exhibition was no other than a urinal extracted from a sanitary house, flipped upside down, and tagged with the words: R. Mutt 1917—later renamed as "Fountain".
He coined Matisse's art as "retinal", meant to please nothing but the eye. Instead, he wanted art to serve the mind.
Duchamp's bold move had a universe of intentions behind. He knew he would dent the establishment for a fact. And that didn't seem to bother him for a second. Not surprisingly, his piece was the only one excluded from the final exhibition's selection. Dismantling the recently-founded organization's credo of "accepting all member's work". The verdict: it lacked the characteristics label it as "real art".
Looking back at Duchamp's feat, we could articulate that art does indeed serve a higher purpose. We could say that art is meditative, transgressive, and outpouring meaning. It relies on us, Modern Artists, how we bestow it in the attempt of triggering micro-social impacts.
Neuroaesthetics, the crossroad between neuroscience and empirical aesthetics
When neuroscientist Semir Zeki coined neuroaesthetics back in the 1990s, he commenced by identifying parallels between an artist's perception of her visual world and her brain's processing of visual input. Questions such as "does the brain trigger aesthetic experiences?" arose from the studies, embedding at the core of the newly founded science.
Following through Zeki's research, other collaborators found through brain scanning technology we can effectively detect the subject's neural reaction to stimuli of beauty. When a participant's brain activity was measured, different areas of the neocortex flared, inferring that the brain was signaling what appealed or not to that person. His or her personal tastes.
Could we say therefore that aesthetics—or the perception of it—is indeed hardwired into our biology? And if so, how does it grow, mutate, or evolve as we venture into adulthood?
Art of a damaged brain
What would happen, however, if our brain was affected by a chronic neurological disease that severely altered our perception of reality? Would it transcribe into a new vision of art, beauty, or the material world and all its undertones?
This was the case of Willem de Kooning, an American-Dutch abstract-expressionist whose art manifested a sudden—abrupt—transmutation after his Alzheimer's diagnose. Willem was known for his agitated, heavily colored paintings up until this moment. All of a sudden, his canvases became airy and spaced out. His colors of choice changed from a wild combination of hues to a minimal primary palette. Alzheimer's appeared to have rewired Kooning's perception of beauty.
Cases like Willem's are more common than we think of and deserve a closer study. The public opinion poses he created his best work in his later years after the disease took over. But then again, how can we objectify that argument? Willem's brain was working in different ways as it was before, yet different doesn't equate to betterment. Or does it?
Similar studies done in a systematic fashion promise convincing results on how or brain works on beauty and art. How our creative capabilities differ and evolve depending on neural health, and how this affects an individual's take on la belleza.
A fair debate: does higher consciousness correlate to the appreciation of beauty?
Questions will continue to surface as we dig deeper into this rabbit hole. Millenary currents of thinking like the Japanese Wabi-Sabi welcome us to seek the beauty in the imperfect. Imperfect paintings, imperfect buildings, imperfect behaviors, imperfect people like we all are.
Growing up, the norm pushed us through the holes of aesthetic canons through publicity stunts, banner ads, half-naked bikini women, and perfectly-shot hamburgers—which we all later found out to look like swollen shoe soles after a scorching Sahara afternoon.
We were shaped to see, understand, perceive beauty through a tiny keyhole. Our notion of pretty is majorly influenced by mainstream media's erratic discourses aimed to satisfy hungry egos and individual interests.
The challenge I pose is: what if we articulate our words responsibly into an inclusive discourse where all shapes and colors are appreciated for what they are?
We can start by teaching our kids that beauty is omnipresent, everywhere to be seen and appreciated. It is in the old vintage leather chair grandma holds onto despite the little tears of time. It is in the latest chameleon-green Reebok snickers with LED-lights, subwoofers, and a projector. It is in the Poodle, as it is in the Shar-pei. It becomes obvious whenever we choose to see it.
I drop my two pennies in Neuroscience to shed more light on this enigma. And yet, who knows? Maybe someday it becomes the driver of this neo-concept of beauty: inclusive, unlabeled, and free.