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This is Your Brain on Art

July 2, 2013

In her article, “Unlocking the Mysteries of the Artistic Mind,” written for Psychology Today, Jonah Lehrer explains how the world’s great artists compare to the leading neuroscientists of today.

Neuroscientists from the University of California at San Diego attempted to uncover the secrets to making and recognizing great art. Ten simple characteristics make up the list of posited perceptual principles:

PEAK SHIFT: We find deliberate distortions of a stimulus even more exciting than the stimulus itself—which is why cartoon caricatures grab our attention.

GROUPING: It feels nice when the distinct parts of a picture can be grouped into a pattern or form. The brain likes to find the signal amid the noise.

BALANCE: Successful art makes use of its entire representational space, and spreads its information across the entire canvas.

CONTRAST: Because of how the visual cortex works, it’s particularly pleasing for the brain to gaze at images rich in contrast, like thick black outlines or sharp angles—or, as in the geometric art of Mondrian, both at once.

ISOLATION: Sometimes less is more. By reducing reality to its most essential features—think a Matisse that’s all bright color and sharp silhouettes—artists amplify the sensory signals we normally have to search for.

PERCEPTUAL PROBLEM SOLVING: Just as we love solving crossword puzzles, we love to “solve” abstract paintings such as cubist still lives or Cézanne landscapes.

SYMMETRY: Symmetrical things, from human faces to Roman arches, are more attractive than asymmetrical ones.

REPETITION, RHYTHM, ORDERLINESS: Beauty is inseparable from the appearance of order. Consider the garden paintings of Monet. Pictures filled with patterns, be it subtle color repetitions or formal rhythms, appear more elegant and composed.

GENERIC PERSPECTIVE: We prefer things that can be observed from multiple viewpoints, such as still lives and pastoral landscapes, to the fragmentary perspective of a single person. They contain more information, making it easier for the brain to deduce what’s going on.

METAPHOR: Metaphor encourages us to see the world in a new way: Two unrelated objects are directly compared, giving birth to a new idea. Picasso did this all the time—he portrayed the bombing of Guernica, for example, with the imagery of a bull, a horse, and a light bulb.

To read the full article, visit http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200907/unlocking-the-mysteries-the-artistic-mind.

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