Brain finds pleasure in processing abstract art
Other studies have shown that when people struggle to find familiar shapes and are successful, they rate the work as “powerful”. Brain scans show very active neural activity as they struggle with the work. The brain sees the work as a puzzle and is pleased when it finds a solution.
Most readers will have seen abstract paintings by the famous Dutch painter Pieter Modrian (1872-1944). Modrian’s abstract work is exclusively made up of horizontal and vertical lines outlining blocks of colour. The paintings look childishly simple but eye-tracking studies show that the patterns are carefully composed. Volunteers’ eyes linger longer on certain places when viewing the original paintings but they pass more rapidly across the work if the painting is rotated. The volunteers also find the original orientation of the work more pleasurable. Readers can easily check out this effect using a book of abstract paintings. Also, making even small changes to the patches of colour in the original painting markedly lessens the enjoyment felt by the viewer. Other studies show that manipulating the original paintings reduces neural activity in areas of the brain linked with interpretation and meaning (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, volume 5, page 98). It seems that our minds note the deliberate arrangements in the paintings.
Many abstract paintings show fractal patterns. Fractal patterns repeat at different scales and are common in nature, eg clouds, branching pattern in trees, outline of mountain peaks, etc. Since our visual sense evolved in the outdoors where it constantly confronted fractal patterns, it may be naturally attuned to process such types of scenes. This and other inbuilt characteristics of our visual senses might explain the longevity of some artwork as opposed to ephemeral fashionable works.
Of course, scientific validation that the mind can be pleased by professional abstract painting does not prove we are dealing with great art but rather that our minds can somehow detect the artists’ intentions, is somewhat pleased with this and can differentiate professional work from random doodles.
How to accurately rate the value of abstract painting is another matter, but there is more to it than the verdict of Al Capp, the American satirist, quoted by Austen, who said abstract paintings are “the product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered”.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry, and public awareness of science officer at UCC. understandingscience.ucc.ie