Neuroscience Changes The Way We Look At Art


Between the late 16th Century to the early 20th Century, the salon-style hand was the central display convention across European culture. Yet, hanging paintings have become less favourable in the modern-day as viewers often struggle to concentrate on a single work. Why would this be the case, you wonder?

The reason allegedly may be to do with the circuitry of the human brain and its neurological activation. Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts hired a neuroscientist to test this theory. “On a behavioural level, it can be distracting to walk into a room and have tons of things to look at,” said Dr. Tedi Asher, appointed on a one-year contract as the museum’s Neuroscience Researcher. “At the level of neurological activation, each painting will be presented less strongly.”

To support her claim, Asher invoked the theory of sensory suppression that claims the optical-neurological apparatus of the viewer deadens upon a barrage of sensory stimuli. In simpler terms, the eye struggles to maintain focus with certain presentations of objects.

Referring to a smartphone and a plastic pen, Asher said: “If you have multiple objects in the same view, you’re going to have some neurons that respond to the phone and other neurons that respond to the pen. It’s been shown that the neurons that respond to one are going to actively suppress the neurons that respond to the other. The representation of the objects in the brain seems to be weakened by having multiple objects.”

Asher’s appointment by the museum is part of a campaign by Dan Monroe, the museum’s Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO, to deploy neuroscience in the service of exhibition design.”

Since Monroe’s introduction, the mid-sized museum just north of Boston has grown in popularity for their convention-busting exhibitions featuring Asian and maritime art. Upon entering the ‘Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age’ exhibition, visitors would feel a more memorable experience through the smells of spices engaging more than the sense of sight. Alternatively, a troupe of live dancers performed alongside the white cube in ‘Rodin: Transforming Sculpture’. The appointment of Asher swiftly followed, leading to a year-long research panel of neuroscientists tasked to crystallising these findings into a publication.

“Anecdotally, we’re all familiar with the idea that a satisfying experience has this delicate balance of meeting and violating our expectations,” Asher said. “In the context of exhibition design, how can we surprise people in a way that won’t be jarring but will help viewers make sense of what they have seen? Something that is unexpected takes longer to detect—but it also makes a more lasting imprint.”

Asher will apply the principles of neuroaesthetics to a reinstallation of Peabody Essex’s permanent collection over the next five years. Neuroaesthetics is the synthesis of neuroscience and aesthetics. Asher has intended for display conventions to sidestep outmoded curatorial strategies, including overloaded walls and indigestible wall text.

One of the main ideas by Asher is to introduce “palate cleansers”, that would allow rest areas for visitors to have respite away from the sensory stimulation. It’s similar to a half-time break in sports or an intermission in a play.

Due to the decreasing popularity of the museum scene in recent years, a $130,000 grant from the Boston-based Barr Foundation has given Peabody the necessary backing for their neuroscience initiative. National Endowment for the Arts carried out a study in 2015 that presented alarming statistics; only 21% of adults in the United States visited a museum or gallery in 2012, down 5.5% from 2002. Peabody has defied this trend as their attendances have grown steadily, but it’s a stark reminder of the plight museums are facing.

“The loss of attendance leaves one to ask, ‘What are the dynamics that are causing this?’” Monroe said. “The strategies and practices that we, as a field, continue to employ are not very effective and, in my view, never will be—they do not recognize the way that people’s brains works.

“That said, we have to all recognize that neuroscience is in its infancy. Nobody understands, for example, how consciousness is created or even what it is.…Ultimately, the deciding factor will be whether or not we’re able to demonstrate that, by better understanding some key elements of the way our brains work, we can create experiences that more people find meaningful and impactful.”

Asher has always been fascinated by the arts, but she chose her passions to lie with the sciences. A full Ph.D. graduate from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences programme, Asher was appointed by Peabody to act as a benign disruptor assessing upcoming events. Her “outsider” as a scientist in the art world is a new development, but one greatly appreciated in the machinery of vision and the relationship between sensation and perception. In the 1960 study Art and Illusion, Ernst Gombrich speaks of a Pythagorean sage who surmised that perception is a creative act on the part of the beholder. When considering a cloud that resembled a centaur or stag antelope, Gombrich said: “What we read into these accidental shapes depends on our capacity to recognise in them things or images we find stored in our minds.” Therefore, an image is a function of the brain instead of being an index of the material world.

Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist at Columbia University and author of Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures (2016), said: “The beholder’s share, as it’s known, is a classic problem in art history. What’s going on in the beholder’s head when he looks at a work of art? This is an ongoing area of research. It’s still in its early stages but potentially quite interesting and, I think, quite important.”

Fixing the schism between art and science “by focusing on a common point at which the two cultures can meet and influence each other” has become Kandel’s specialised target. Art historians remain skeptical of neuroaesthetics, which consequently may lead to “a spurious reduction of art to the science of the brain”. This is an assumption of Jonathan Gilmore, an Assistant Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Baruch College.

“Some art historians are enthusiastic [about neuroaesthetics], and others think it’s ridiculous,” Kandel said. “They say, ‘What does it have to offer? It demeans art to think that it has a biological explanation.’ But they should not worry: Neuroscience is not going to replace an art-historical approach to art; it’s going to supplement and enrich it.

“This is a very interesting experiment on the part of [the Peabody Essex Museum].One of the things that strikes me with many current exhibitions is that they’re too damn large! It’s absolutely exhausting to go through them.”

Asher is fully aware of the challenge she faces applying lessons from a science lab into real-life business strategy. Peabody are not messing around, employing over 300 staff and performing with an operating budget of $30 million. “The way [my colleagues here] talk about things feels much less structured than in the science world, where it is much more about connecting the dots. I feel like there is more fluidity to how things are approached in a museum.”  

With the All the Flowers are for Me by Anila Quayyum Agha before her, the immersive installation leaves Asher pondering the neurological processes going through her mind. Acknowledging the sensation of being caressed by the light chamber on display, Asher says: “Your experience of this installation depends on what it reminds you of.”

“When you recall a memory, the regions of your cortex that process different senses become activated. So, if you’re looking at an image of a fur coat, you might feel as though you can touch the fur, and that’s because that part of your brain that would process the tactile experience is becoming activated by the memory.”  

“But, of course, it’s all in your mind.”