What is Neuroaesthetics?
You are probably familiar with the term “aesthetics.” Though in modern times, it’s largely been co-opted by the beauty industry, it has applications far beyond waxing and chemical peels. From a philosophical lens, aesthetics is the branch that deals with beauty, taste, and the empirical laws that define them. The term is actually derived from the Greek word aisthētikós, meaning “pertaining to the sense of perception.” Most everything that one perceives visually is ruled by the laws of aesthetics to some degree.
Neuroaesthetics is a relatively recent addition to the field that scientifically explores the way our brains consume and create beautiful things like art and music. Its study is informed by a blending minds from the seemingly opposite worlds, design and neuroscience and art history, to name a few. While traditional forms of “art” are often linked to neuroaesthetics, it actually applies to virtually anything that evokes judgement on a visual or aesthetic basis.
At first, the link between art and science may seem flimsy. However, the two are more interwoven than one might think. In 2010, Johns Hopkins’ Brain Science Institute (BSI) began to explore the connections between science, the arts, and our brains. At the time, neuroaesthetics was even less known that it is today, but that didn’t keep researchers from asking important questions like “Why are humans the only animals who enjoy art?” and “What is it about art that makes it so unique?”
At the time, BSI hoped to uncover data that inform the use of the arts, from painting to dance, in the treatment of emotional disorders – or even create a standard for hospital architecture that would ease tension and strain during times of distress. Today, neuroaesthetics involve even more disciplines. If you’re in the business of data (collecting, displaying, organizing, and/or delivering), you understand the intersection of data and art: data visualization.
By understanding the ins and outs of neuroaesthetics, you can not only understand the psychology behind good data viz, but put them to work in your next visualization project.
Beauty is in the Eye – and the Brain – of the Beholder
Practically speaking, neuroaesthetics seek to answer the questions about how art and beauty affect us. Why do we favor one aesthetic over another? Can we measure the explicit “beauty” or utility of a piece of art? And more importantly, what happens in our brains we see something aesthetically pleasing?
You don’t have to be an artist (or a neuroscientist) to understand and recognize neuroaesthetics. In fact, evidence of the science of visual perception pertains to most everything you see around you. If you’ve ever hung a painting or poster on the wall, carefully arranged a bookshelf, or even picked a favorite color, you’ve exercised taste and perception. If you’ve ever had an epiphany while looking at a masterwork of art, your prefrontal cortex was likely stimulated by the visual experience you had. That’s neuroaesthetics.
Getting to the Brains of the Matter: 8 Laws of Artistic Experience
Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, known for his research in psychophysics and behavioral neurology, describes artistic (or aesthetic) experience in eight laws. Here’s a breakdown of each one:
- The Peak Shift Principle – A psychological reaction that happens when a test subject responds more strongly to exaggerated stimuli. An artist, for instance, might try to illicit a singular emotional response by reducing unnecessary “information” in a painting and exaggerating the features that evoke the emotion they want their audience to feel.
- Isolation – A visual principle that removes unneeded objects from a scene to amplify one element. Here, the key is simplicity.
- Grouping – By grouping similar objects, an artist (or dashboarder!) can draw greater attention to the small differences between similar objects.
- Contrast – Used to focus the viewers’ attention on something specific by placing dissimilar colors next to each other. On the neurological level, it is more difficult for your brain to relay a gradient of colors to the brain that it is to process two unique colors next to each other.
- Perceptual Problem Solving – The concept that viewers derive greater enjoyment from “discovering” something. In short, aesthetics communicate more effectively when they force the viewer to draw a conclusion. In other words, visual data has a greater influence on its audience when viewers can follower you path of logic to its conclusion.
- The Generic Viewpoint – As a general rule, artistic interpretations should not require a unique perspective; they should be accessible to viewers. More often than not, visual communication should follow the audience’s natural inclination – not counter it.
- Visual Metaphors – A mental tunnel between two seemingly unrelated ideas. Like a metaphor in writing, goal of a visual metaphor is to show users how two vastly different objects are, in a way, the connected.
- Symmetry – Symmetry is perhaps the simplest of Ramachandran’s laws. Biologically, scientists have suggested that people find symmetry pleasing because it tends to appear in nature. While asymmetry can be visually pleasing as well, viewers’ fires and natural inclination is toward balance.
Turning Data Into Art
Informative art is about inspiring and providing food (not fast food) for thought. #dataviz Click To Tweet
In the study Informative Art: Using Amplified Artworks as Information Displays, researchers in Sweden investigated the impacts and effects of what they referred to as the “slow technology” of “computer augmented, or amplified, works of art that not only are aesthetical objects but also information displays.” They recognized that what we put on our walls in our shared spaces, like hotel rooms and offices and even our homes, doesn’t have to be purely pretty. There is the opportunity to explicitly communicate information to the observer. Moreover, these displays stay in the periphery, not demanding attention, which invites a more restful and reflective eye. There is evidence to suggest that we process information differently depending on our mental state, meaning sharing important data through a wall display might trigger different insights than a more intrusive approach.
So, we’ve learned that informative art is any visual display that communicates information. Sound familiar? That’s because data visualization, in its purest form, turns data into art. Informative art specifically focuses on using neuroaesthetics to amplify and emphasize data. Data visualization seeks to do the same thing. By using color and form, you can take countless rows of data from an Excel spreadsheet and turn it into something both beautiful and practical. In the end, you’ve created something that bridges the gap between aesthetics and information and, most importantly, communicates important data to your audience in ways a spreadsheet never could.
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- 1.Quick Tip: Matching Colors = Effective Branding
- 2.Color Your Data
- 3.Data Visualization and the 9 Fundamental Design Principles
- 4.Neuroaesthetics and Informative Art
- 5.Painting by Numbers: Designing Your Data Picture
- 6.Developing Your (Color) Palette
- 7.Get Inspired: 19 Inspiring Data Viz Designs
- 8.INFOGRAPHIC: Fundamental Principles for Data Visualization Design