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An approach to Neuroesthetics: Artistic Creation and Expression

Posted on 22 March, 2018

Blanca Estela Lamadrid Palomares
Why is it said that art creation and appreciation are produced in the brain? In the last decade, more information has been gathered about the brain than in all the preceding history of scientific research on its functioning. Interest in the research of art and the neuronal connections required for artistic creation expands today over several cultural and scientific fields. Biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, architects, mathematicians, physicists, and neurologists take on aesthetic problems.
In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci stated the aesthetic law of the golden proportion, thus bringing physics and mathematics into the
exploration of our sensibility. Breakthroughs in imageology [1]

, with its rich means of research, are used to generate an experimental aesthetics that help to provide evidence in support of pioneering ideas on
the interconnectedness of art and the functioning of the brain.[2]
Art is viewed as being part of human nature, based on the different kinds of perception needed to construct ideas and abstractions. These are mental processes originating in the brain, whose function is to process information about the world (Semir Zeki, 2000).
The brain systematizes and orders information through the use of rules, concept-building, and the production of abstract representations. As J. J. Campos Bueno (2010) points out, it’s evident that human activities aiming at the satisfaction of basic needs go beyond the merely biological, even though they are all determined by cerebral activity. Raúl Milone (2015), quoting Hippocrates, states that “in the brain, and nowhere else but in the brain, lies the origin or cause of joy, pleasure, laughter, leisure, sorrow, pain, or dejection”.
If art is a product of the brain, an ever increasing understanding of cerebral functioning through its neuronal basis will contribute to our understanding, be it full or partial, of the process of artistic creation. Where do these processes generate?
The brain is a large organ with multiple functions. When it comes to artistic processes, we can say that they are complex activities of the central nervous system. Let’s consider the movements involved in the act of drawing. We are able to draw because our brain sends signals to activate the motor coordination and initiate the movement. These signals originate in the cerebellum, they travel through the axons to the muscles and indicate to the hand when to start tracing the drawing.

Another fascinating cerebral task is our memory, generated by neuronal connexions in the hippocampus. Any significant experience is transferred from the short term memory to the long term memory. During the night, when the growth hormone is released, a memory can be consolidated. When an artist sets out to produce a work, she often resorts, consciously or unconsciously, to ideas and images stored in her memory.
Pablo Picasso once said that the brain makes all the scenes with which it has become familiar; an idea is transformed into a painted canvas. Zeki (2000) confirms this intuition experimentally, proving that the brain records all the objects it has visualized, depending on multiple concrete perceptions, and through this process it can synthesize an idea of the object to be created.

Our central nervous systems is essential for all of our actions. What is its role in the creation and appreciation of art? Creative processes begin by setting in motion all of our senses. Through perception we feel pleasure or displeasure. Pleasure is understood as any element that reinforces our behaviour. If I’m sad and I take a drug that makes me happy, this will give me pleasure. If I’m very stressed, taking a pill may relax me, and this will give me pleasure. The mesolimbic pathway is one of the main areas dealing with these sensations, making us feel good when we engage in biological activities that make us feel good: eating, sleeping, exercising, having sex. This is the area responsible for the pleasure we derive from a pleasant activity. For instance, if I’m a visual artist and my work is highly praised, I’ll feel pleasure; if I’m a teacher and my students understand my lessons, I fell pleasure; if I’m a mother and my children hug me, I feel pleasure. If a child is given a chocolate treat to reward her good behaviour, she will feel pleasure. This is felt in the mesolimbic pathway, where the neuronal connections that initiate creative processes are generated as well. This is wired to the mesocortial pathway -the area of judgement- where we assign value to our activities. If I exercise and feel pleasure, for instance, my judgement will tell me to stop at one point: “you’ve been at it for over an hour, it can do you harm”. If I’m in the midst of a creative process, the impulse to produce the work of art comes from the pleasure I feel in creating; in the course of the creative work, the prefrontal cortex intervenes to assess my progress, it is the aesthetic judgement that indicates the path to follow or how to solve problems arising in the creative process.


MoraC de Asmat (2014) points out that reward neurons intervene in this behavior, which can become addictive if it is reiterated, getting out of our will’s control: “These addictive behaviors are caused by a dysfunction in our reward neurons, in favor of actions oriented towards the procurement of the addictive substance, be it a chemical agent or an object of desire, however symbolic this might be”. Louise Bourgeois said: “I’m a person given to addictions, and the only way I can quit an addiction is to acquire another, less harmful one”. Many artists focus their energy on their art, thus avoiding greater problems (D. Goleman, 2013), which indicates that their prefrontal cortex is in good working order.

The brain is always looking for ways to feel greater pleasure. What happens in creative processes? This is where the mesolimbic pathway intervenes. It is made up of two main elements: the acumbens nucleus and the ventral tegmental area, intercommunicated by dopamine, a biochemical neurotransmitter. During pleasurable activities, dopamine is released and adheres to its neuron, its receptors, producing a response. What kinds of responses? All those that produce pleasure, a nice feeling, joy, laughter, crying. Synaptic connections are created, releasing dopamine, which in turn produce plastic changes in the brain, so that if I constantly stimulate this area through an activity that incites imagination and creativity, it will change, becoming a thicker area due to an increase in receptors. This phenomenon is called the upregulation of receptors.
The brain of an artist constantly engaged in creation presents mesolimbic changes stimulating her to work ever more in order to feel the pleasure that the act of creation generates in her. These changes have been scientifically demonstrated, it has been established that they modify the functioning of the brain. The brain of an artist is different to the brain of someone in a different profession (O. De Juan-Ayala, 2012).
MoraC de Asmat (2014) describes how these changes take place in the brain in relation to the personality of a contemporary visual artist and the different stages of artistic production:

  1. Lucubration inside the artist’s brain: It’s generated in the dopaminergic system of the ventral striatum, which receives fibers from the hippocampus, the amygdala, the entorhinal and perirhinal cortexes, the anterior cingulate cortex, the medial orbitofrontal cortex and locations inside the temporal lobe.
  2. Realization, or the pleasure of achieving what she had imagined: persistence, certainty, prefrontal cortex connected to the limbic system and other parts involved in visual and motor tasks. It also has to do with endorphins and oxytocin, tolerating the pain of failure and attachment to specific manifestations.
  3. <Pleasure in achieving recognition: it involves noradrenaline and reward-dependency, as well as serotonin and our fear or harm-avoiding system, related to the limbic system.
  4. Pleasure in communicating: self-transcendence and cooperation, linked to spirituality (frontal and temporal lobes) and empathy (mirror neurons).

All of our senses take part in the creation and appreciation of the visual arts, but the sense of sight is invariably the first that comes to mind. However, it is a common misconception to think that we see with our eyes. Light enters through our eyes to the retina, where it is conveyed to the optic nerve, so that we actually see with the occipital area where vision is integrated.

Semir Zeki (2000) argues in Splendors and Miseries of the Brain that even though we perceive color as a property of objects, it is actually our brain’s interpretation of a physical property in them. Quoting Kant, he points out that “the mind does not draw its laws from nature a priori, but rather it dictates its laws on nature”.

Zeki’s findings, through technological breakthroughs in imageology, point to the neural center of the brain, the V4 complex or visual association cortex, where this operation takes place. The V4 complex, a relatively small area in the brain’s fusiform body, is responsible for constructing the perception of color. It was discovered studying cases of chromatic sensory alteratrions in patients with lesions in that area of the brain (Zeki, 2000).
Such discoveries contribute to identify and know precisely how artistic processes take place, from a description of neuronal activity and the brain circuits involved in it, going beyond conceptual thought and the realm of ideas. Brainn research can provide further clues regarding its functioning in the arts. These are only just beginning, but different approaches to it from neuroesthetics have already produced interesting results.

Researchers are trying to provide scientific evidence regarding artistic processes from neurobiology, insisting that the perception of beauty may be encoded in the cerebral cortex.
Emotions brought about by artistic creation and appreciation are stimuli with sensory properties, generating neuronal connections that can be observed through imaging technologies.
Studies have shown that emotions are universal behaviors; [3] ongoing research aims at establishing if artistic expression and its power to move us are universal as well, since both originate in the emotions triggered by coming into contact with a work of art.

The limbic system is involved with both artistic processes and our sense of pleasure.
Artistic creation and appreciation are human activities whereby emotions are shared by creators, critics, gallerists, museographers and audiences.
Contemporary visual artists and their behavior can be understood with a better knowledge of the dopaminergic system, which is deeply involved with personality. Each site in this circle of pleasure produces neuronal connections during the process of artistic creation.

Neuroesthetics is not a neutral term for a general study of the cerebral basis for artistic creation and appreciation; it is a specific project, with concrete onthological and epistemological premises, regarding what is art and how it ought to be studied.

Some researchers consider that in order to establish a scientific basis for artistic processes it is necessary -just as in the exact sciences- to provide laws derived from artistic experience itself, since artists apply them, consciously or not, to induce an optimal stimulus in the brain’s visual areas, particularly in the limbic system. Ten such rules are suggested: 1) hyperbole, 2) grouping, 3) contrast, 4) isolation, 5) resolution of the problem of perception, 6) symmetry, 7) an aversion to coincidences, 8) repetition, 9) rhythm and order, 10) balance and metaphor.
Neuroesthetic researches are in their initial stages. For now, there are more questions than answers. For instance, what makes the brain judge a work to be wonderful or disastrous, or why some artists are more innovative than others.
Campos Bueno, J.J., “Neuroestética: hacia un estudio científico de la belleza y de los sentimientos estéticos compartidos en el arte”, 2010, ˂

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De Juan-Ayala, O., “Neuro Beethoven: el concierto de las neuronas. La Pictomusicadelfía y el potencial neuroexperimental de la música”, Artseduca. Revista electrónica de educación en las artes, 2012, ˂

˃. Last viewed: December 10, 2017.
Freeman, A., “El arte tiene su ciencia”, El Correo de la Unesco,
June, 1999, ˂˃.
Last viewed: February 20, 2018.
José María Segovia de Arana (eds.), 2000. Ciencia y sociedad: nuevos enigmas científicos. Madrid, Fundación Santander Central
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˃. Last viewed: December 10, 2017.
Milone, Raúl, “Neuroestética: modelos empíricos de la experiencia de belleza”, in Guillermo Cuadrado, Juan Redmond y Rodrigo López O. (eds.), Conceptos y lenguajes en ciencia y tecnología, 2015, ˂

˃. Last viewed: December 10, 2017.
MoraC de Asmat, M., “Reflexiones sobre neuroestética. Arte e investigación”, Mana Tukuk

Illapa. Revista del Instituto de Investigaciones Museológicas y Artísticas de la Universidad Ricardo Palma, núm.
11, Perú, 2014. Onians, J., “El ‘ojo de la época’ de Michael Baxandall: de la historia social del arte a la neurohistoria del arte”, Quintana. Revista de Estudos do Departamento de Historia da Arte, núm. 4, Santiago de Compostela, 2005, pp. 99-114.
Zeki, Semir, “Esplendores y miserias del cerebro”, en Francisco Mora Teruel y José María Segovia de Arana (eds.), Ciencia y sociedad: nuevos enigmas científicos, Madrid, Fundación
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[1] According to the Diccionario de la Lengua Española, imaginology is
the study and clinical use of images produced by X rays, ultrasound, MRI,
etc. ˂˃.
[2] Ernst Heinrich Weber (1975-1978) studied the quantitative relaation between te magnitude of a physical stimulus and how this stimulus is lost. This was reelaborated by Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887) and is known today as the Weber-Fechner Law, which states that the minimal perceptible change in the magnitude of a stimulus is proportionate to the magnitude of said stimulus.
[3] Paul Ekman proved that the perception of emotions is universal: sadness, joy, anger, compassion, deploy the same behavioral features and register in the same neuronal connections.


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