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NeuroScientistNews

Your Brain on Art

A new scientific discipline investigates the neurology underlying the experience and the creation of beauty.

By | May 1, 2014

ANDZREJ KRAUZEI had just finished reading Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch when Anjan Chatterjee’s article on how the brain reacts to art and beauty arrived in my inbox. Central to the novel’s fairly preposterous plot is a small oil painting of the same name done by a Dutch artist in 1654, and sprinkled throughout the book are thoughtful reflections on art and on why viewing paintings is so often such an emotional experience. Both the novel and Chatterjee’s article got me thinking about what kinds of artworks make me pause and consider them at length. Portraits are invariably my favorites. Neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel explained why that might be in his book The Age of Insight and in a 2013 New York Times op-ed piece, in which he wrote: “The brain’s representation of faces is especially important to the beholder’s response to portraiture. Our brain devotes more space to reading the details of faces than to any other object.”

In his feature, Chatterjee reviews the state of the young discipline of neuroaesthetics, with fascinating details about how brain injuries affect artists’ painting, as well as imaging results that track the functioning of an art viewer’s brain beyond the visual cortex. Reading this article will probably enhance your next museum visit.

Looking at art of a different sort has inspired some ecologists aiming to restore certain Earth ecosystems to an approximation of their prehuman biodiversity and balance. Pleistocene cave paintings depicting extinct megafauna offer insights about what kinds of modern-day species could repopulate abandoned agricultural lands, restoring such areas to a wilder, more “natural” landscape. In “Where the Wild Things Were,” Daniel Cossins reports on “rewilding” efforts in Europe and in the U.S., the controversy surrounding them, and the call for more science to ground such efforts. The conference blogs from a March meeting, “Megafauna and Ecosystem Function: from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene,” make for interesting further reading.

New labeling techniques that result in startlingly beautiful images of the brain’s complex wiring constantly grace the covers of life science publications. They also serve as inspiration to artists, including neuroscientist Greg Dunn, one of whose pieces appeared on the cover of our November 2013 issue. The intricate branching of blood vasculature, and how to engineer such complexity into human organs generated from scratch, is what inspires Jalees Rehman (“Building Flesh and Blood”). While stem-cell research is plowing ahead to provide the appropriate cells for engineering complex organs such as heart, liver, and pancreas, “one major obstacle keeping researchers from craft­ing functioning organs is the inability to ensure adequate blood supply to the nascent organ,” writes Rehman in a feature that bring us up to date on how researchers and bioengineers are learning to perform this very feat.

Another May highlight is a Profile interview with Thomas Jefferson University’s György Hajnóczky, in which he talks about how 20 years of collaborative mitochondrial research have culminated in a newly formed center dedicated to fighting illnesses resulting from dysfunction of the organelles.

This month’s featured technique is a new way to measure ATP usage at the energy-hungry synaptic terminals of neurons (here). Lab Tools columns examine methods for tracking how and when bacterial colonies signal each other (here) and new techniques for producing human monoclonal antibodies (here). And a Bio Business article looks at strategies afoot to utilize the growing volume of biomedical data.

As some researchers work to understand how our amazing brains can conceive of and process beautiful works of art, and others find inspiration in the artwork of our ancestors, science never ceases providing new marvels upon which to gaze in wonder. That’s a beautiful thing.

 

Mary Beth Aberlin  Editor-in-Chief  eic@the-scientist.com

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