A&O – ART in the BRAIN – Experience and Expression


A&O – ART in the BRAIN – Experience and Expression

More Than Meets the Eye: Art Engages the Social Brain

Janneke E. P. van Leeuwen,  Jeroen Boomgaard, Danilo Bzdok,  Sebastian J. Crutch,  and Jason D. Warren

Front Neurosci. 2022; 16: 738865.

Published online 2022 Feb 25. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2022.738865  PMCID: PMC8914233  PMID: 35281491


Abstract.  Here we present the viewpoint that art essentially engages the social brain, by demonstrating how art processing maps onto the social brain connectome—the most comprehensive diagram of the neural dynamics that regulate human social cognition to date. We start with a brief history of the rise of neuroaesthetics as the scientific study of art perception and appreciation, in relation to developments in contemporary art practice and theory during the same period.

Building further on a growing awareness of the importance of social context in art production and appreciation, we then set out how art engages the social brain and outline candidate components of the “artistic brain connectome.”

We explain how our functional model for art as a social brain phenomenon may operate when engaging with artworks.

We call for closer collaborations between the burgeoning field of neuroaesthetics and arts professionals, cultural institutions and diverse audiences in order to fully delineate and contextualize this model. Complementary to the unquestionable value of art for art’s sake, we argue that its neural grounding in the social brain raises important practical implications for mental health, and the care of people living with dementia and other neurological conditions.


Introduction: Placing Art in the World and in the Brain

While beauty has been the subject of philosophical enquiry since ancient times (e.g., Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Plotinus’ Enneads), aesthetics as the study of “what is sensed and imagined” was founded by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in 1735 (Baumgarten, Meditationes § CXVI, pp. 86–7). Its emergence coincided with the Enlightenment, during which rational thought was considered the only reliable method to uncover universal truths. Through seminal publications such as The Critique of Judgment by , the subject of aesthetics gradually became “the nature and appreciation of beauty.” According to Kant, beautiful art evoked universal pleasure, disconnected from personal interest. This contention was adopted as the guiding principle in the creation, as well as the cultural analysis, of the “fine arts” in Western societies throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Over the course of the twentieth century, however, progressive artists led a movement away from this dogma of aesthetics. They recognized that art communicated on deeper and more complex levels with the human mind, in ways that went beyond the experience of beauty and pleasure. In her seminal performance “Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful,” the artist Marina Abramović provocatively challenged the notion that art must be beautiful, proclaiming that this expectation applied to (female) artists as well (). Abramović’s pivotal performance revealed that the aesthetic judgment of art is not primarily conveyed by the senses or guided by universal attributes of beauty, but is inevitably influenced by subjective and ever-changing social norms specifying what art, and artists, “should” be like. Growing acknowledgment of this critical relationship between art and its social context has had a profound influence on subsequent artistic practice and academic study.

Though philosophers and scientists have long been interested in how we perceive and experience art, neuroaesthetics as a scientific discipline addressing the neural bases for the perception, contemplation and creation of art is a very recent development (). Neuroaesthetics had its roots in visual neuroscience, which is reflected by codifications such as the “eight laws” of artistic experience proposed by , though the reductionism of this approach has been eloquently criticized (). From a philosophical perspective, the research paradigms of neuroaesthestics are largely in the tradition of Kant, focusing on the beauty and pleasure or reward value of (visual) art. In the past decade, however, researchers have become increasingly aware of the need for broader conceptual frameworks that address a greater diversity of aesthetic objects, and which contextualize art beyond the neural mechanisms of sensori-motor processing and the experience of beauty and pleasure ().  have proposed that the cognitive neuroscience of aesthetics, the cognitive neuroscience of art and the cognitive neuroscience of beauty constitute overlapping, but distinct subfields of neuroaesthetics ().  have suggested that computational methods may further elucidate feature-based neural mechanisms of art perception and appreciation, but that closer collaborations with researchers and practitioners in the arts and related humanities will be needed to attain a comprehensive understanding of the richness and complexity of art. Acknowledging that we are not passive perceivers of art, but engage with it dynamically as a social artifact, may be especially important for elucidating the neural mechanisms of artistic creativity. Neuroaesthetics has been criticized for not taking the social context and value of art enough into account (), but  have counterargued that this has historically been more a result of technological restraints than of principled choice. The social dimensions of art is a topic of active interest, which recently inspired a dialogue between philosophers, neuroscientists, artists, and social scientists ().

Paralleling this conceptual reorientation, certain recent developments in neuroscience have motivated and informed a more nuanced and comprehensive picture of the artistic brain. In particular, the advent of the social brain connectome—a “wiring diagram” of the neural connections that regulate social cognition—has transformed our view of human social behavior as a neurobiological phenomenon (), demonstrating that distributed and interlocking neural networks support and integrate the diverse processes that together mediate our interactions with other people and their artifacts. This recent paradigm shift in social neuroscience promises to have an equally transformative impact on neuroaesthetics, and our view of art as an construct of the human social brain. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, demonstrating shared neural circuitry engaged by both art perception and social interaction may illuminate the neural mechanisms that are common to both (). Secondly, establishing the social brain connectome lays the ground for experiments that can assess and visualize the engagement of the social brain by art empirically. Finally, by considering the social context integral to complex behavioral constructs, the emerging paradigm might align neuroaesthetics conceptually with prevailing cultural issues surrounding the nature, value and purpose of art that that have occupied practicing artists over the past century.

Our aims in this review are firstly, to examine the evidence that art engages the social brain; secondly, to show how this neural architecture might operate in viewing artworks; and finally, to work out some neuroscientific and clinical implications raised by our formulation. We start from the hypothesis (widely endorsed by artists themselves) that art is in the first place a social construct, which cannot be divorced from its perceptual and aesthetic qualities: it is always produced and validated within a societal context based on shared cultural values and can only be fully understood as a social object. We further hypothesize that components of the social brain connectome support the analysis, appreciation and behavioral response to artworks. Neuroscience cannot answer what is or what is not (good) art. It can, however, attempt to illuminate how art and creativity relate to other complex human behaviors, and identify factors that tend to promote particular aesthetic valuations. We present a prima facie case for visual art as a social brain phenomenon, drawing pre-eminently on evidence derived from the social brain connectome to propose an “artistic brain connectome.” We argue that neuroaesthetics should engage with this evidence, suggest practical and clinical applications of the artistic brain connectome with particular reference to aging and dementia, and outline a roadmap for further experimental work.