Do you like weird art? Blame your brain
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To many people’s eyes, artist Mark Rothko’s enormous paintings are little more than swaths of color. Yet a Rothko can fetch nearly $100 million. Meanwhile, Pablo Picasso’s warped faces fascinate some viewers and terrify others.
Why do our perceptions of beauty differ so widely? The answer may lie in our brain networks. Researchers have now developed an algorithm that can predict art preferences by analyzing how a person’s brain breaks down visual information and decides whether a painting is “good.” The findings show for the first time how intrinsic features of a painting combine with human judgment to give art value in our minds.
Most people—including researchers—consider art preferences to be all over the map, says Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study. Many preferences are rooted in biology–sugary foods, for instance, help us survive. And people tend to share similar standards of beauty when it comes to human faces and landscapes. But when it comes to art, “There are relatively arbitrary things we seem to care about and value,” Chatterjee says.
To figure out how the brain forms value judgments about art, computational neuroscientist Kiyohito Iigaya and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology first asked more than 1300 volunteers on the crowdsourcing website Amazon Mechanical Turk to rate a selection of 825 paintings from four Western genres including impressionism, cubism, abstract art, and color field painting. Volunteers were all over the age of 18, but researchers didn’t specify their familiarity with art or their ethnic or national origin.
Using an algorithm to reveal patterns in connections between datapoints, the researchers found that paintings preferred by the same groups of people tended to share certain visual characteristics. These characteristics all fell into two categories: “Low-level” characteristics, like contrast and hue, were intrinsic to an image. “High-level” characteristics, like the emotion a painting elicited, required human interpretation.
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