The ability to appreciate art stems from our need to visually assess mates, food and habitats – key elements of evolutionary survival. This may explain why those parts of the brain involved in processing visual information are linked to regions associated with reward, and why beauty makes us happy. But how do humans understand art? Some argue that since art is richly complex and embedded in culture, scientists can’t answer that question. Yet researchers are using symmetry, a simple artistic element, to investigate the psychology of viewing pictures. Individuals were shown images where the symmetry is mirrored (pictured, top), absent (middle), or rotational (bottom) and asked to link them to positive or negative words. The subjects responded positively to symmetry but, significantly, only when asked to look for it beforehand. It seems art appreciation is not passive: to gain satisfaction we must focus our attention first.
Written by Julie Webb