How can we be moved by a work of art?

Has a painting ever given you a wave of emotion? Have you ever had chills from listening to a piece of music? Jean-Pierre Changeux tries to explain why we answer yes to these questions in his book La Beauté dans le cerveau (The Beauty in the Brain, Odile Jacob). Interviewed in L'Obs, the neurobiologist reviews research in the field of “art neurosciences” on understanding aesthetic emotion. So what happens in our brains when we're presented with a work of art?

The work of J.P. Changeux, an honorary professor at the Collège de France, is presented as a summary of twenty years of research, particularly on the neural mechanisms involved in aesthetic perception. When listening to a piece of music, our brain distinguishes several components (the melody, harmony, rhythm, and emotion triggered) that each involve a different type of processing. Looking at a painting (or the visual arts more generally), the brain will determine the “centers of meaning” (through colors, shapes, and movement). Through nerve impulses, these various stimuli and the associated information are transmitted to the thalamus, and then to the cerebral cortex where they are separated into different specialized areas in order to be analyzed.

J.P. Changeux and his colleague Stanislas Dehaene (a former student) analyzed what happened next in what they called “the conscious neuronal work space," an area where an internal re-composition (of the perceived work) of our representations and memories will take place instantaneously. It’s thanks to these special neurons with very long axons capable of connecting distant areas in our brain that this personal synthesizing process can take place. Thus, when we contemplate a painting, the access of a given perception to our consciousness corresponds to a specific form of "ignition," a term used by the two neuroscientists to define the sudden blazing up of the "conscious neuronal working space." But what makes this “ignition” unique? J.P. Changeux hypothesizes that "the emotional value of a work of art, and its evocative power, elicit an extraordinary blaze which invades our conscious space... we might imagine an explosive ignition of the conscience, uniting the visual system, pre-frontal cortex - the seat of reason, and the limbic system - the seat of primary emotions."

This would explain why the same painting or musical work can leave some “cold” while provoking an emotional shock in others. Each aesthetic experience depends on the past experience of the observer (the elements stored in long term memory), but also on contextual elements present at the given moment. As a result, it’s rare to have the same reaction twice to a single piece of artwork.

While J.P. Changeux states that the “neurobiological definition of beautiful” remains to be found, we can conclude this article on aesthetic emotion with this quote by Oscar Wilde, which Changeux's research supports: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
Source: (interview of J.P. Changeux by V. Radier).


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