Saturday, November 24, 2007

Not So Fast, Eye of the Beholder!

Before reading any further, look at the images of the three sculptures and decide which one you find most attractive. No, this isn’t an offshoot of C. Dale’s caption contests—or is it? It’s from a study done in Italy (of course) on people’s responses to works of art. Actually the study itself may be somewhat less interesting than a comparison of the original study to a somewhat popularized summary in LiveScience.

The LiveScience story emphasizes the study’s implication that human perceptions of beauty—specifically, human responses to the classical “golden ratio”—may be genetically hard-wired, because most people pick the same image as their favorite. (Well, it’s not really “most people”; rather, it’s a majority of 14 Italian college students “with no experience in art theory.”)

The study itself focuses more on the different responses of the subjects (as shown by brain scans) to the three questions they were asked—whether they “paid attention” to an image when it was shown to them, whether they “liked” it, and whether they found it “proportional”:

In the condition in which the viewers were asked to indicate explicitly which sculptures they liked, there was a strong increase in the activity of the amygdala, a structure that responds to incoming information laden with emotional value. Thus, instead of allowing their nervous centers to “resonate” in response to the observed stimuli (observation condition), when the viewers judged the stimuli according to their individual idiosyncratic criteria (explicit aesthetic judgment), that structure was activated that signals which stimuli had produced pleasant experiences in the past.
This raises a lot of interesting questions! Were people’s responses to the images more spontaneous and honest when they were merely asked to observe them “as if in a museum” than when they were asked if they “liked” them? Were their responses more “conservative” when they were asked to shift into critic mode and pass judgment on the images, because then they applied the criteria they had developed from looking at other works of art that “had produced pleasant experiences in the past”? Were their responses more “romantic” because of activation of the amygdala, which “responds to incoming information laden with emotional value”? When I picked the same image as most people picked in the study, was I really responding to the “golden ratio” of the distance from his head to his navel to the distance from his navel to his knee, or was I just responding to the cute little swivel of his hip?

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