The Brain and Art

 How does the brain respond to art ?

The Essence of Art and the Peak Shift Principle (effect)

What does it mean to ‘capture the very essence’ of something in order to ‘evoke a direct emotional response’?

What the artist tries to do (either consciously or unconsciously) is to not only capture the essence of something but also to amplify it in order to more powerfully activate the same neural mechanisms that would be activated by the original object.

Science tells us about the peak shift effect — a well-known principle in animal discrimination learning. If a rat is taught to discriminate a square from a rectangle and rewarded only for the rectangle, it quickly learns to respond more frequently and enthusiastically to the rectangle. Interestingly, the rat’s response to a rectangle that is even longer and “rectanglier” (e.g. a ratio of 4:1) the response is even greater than it was to the original prototype on which it was trained. This curious result implies that what the rat is learning is not a prototype but a rule, i.e. rectangularity. 

How does this fascinating principle — the peak shift effect — relate to human pattern recognition and aesthetic preference?

Take, for example, an art work which exaggerates elements within the posture/space system , (sculpture or painting),  or in the ‘colour space’ or ‘motion space’. Could this be the Peak Effect Principle leading each individual viewer to his/her own feelings and responses to the art work, based on a lifetime of subliminal aesthetic “training”. Another scientific study showed that a seagull chic would peck just as furiously on the red spot on it’s mother’s beak(the cue for food), whether the beak was attached to the mother or not (gruesome scientists!!). A stick with three red stripes received a huge pecking as well (built into the genetic code of the chic was an association of getting food with a red dot, so a long red dot was even more appealing). Was my mother’s pyjama top turquoise? Did that lead me to associate something as wonderful as mother’s milk with turquoise? Is that why I am drawn inexplicably to turquoise?

Consider the way in which a skilled cartoonist produces a caricature of a famous face, 

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eg. Prince Charles. They take two or three features that are different to the standard egg-head, then they exaggerate those onto a standard egg head, using the Peak Effect principle to distort line and shape. We know immediately who they are satirising. 

 Have you heard the expression: ‘All art is caricature’. (This is not literally true, of course, but as we can see, it is true surprisingly often.)

Many styles of art over the centuries ‘caricatured’ or produced peak shifts in shading, highlights, illumination etc to an extent that would never occur in a real image. e.g.. Cararavaggio used “chiascurro” (exaggerations of light and shade)

Even the sunflowers of Van Gogh or the water lilies of Monet may be the equivalent — in colour space — of the stick with the three stripes, in that they excite the visual neurons that represent colour memories of those flowers even more effectively than a real sunflower or water lily might. Van Gogh  chose complimentary violets opposite the yellows which gave his yellows a “yellow-issimo” edge. "Instead of trying to exactly paint what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully." 


The primate brain has specialized modules concerned with other visual modalities such as colour, depth and motion. It seems that the artist can generate caricatures by exploiting the peak shift effect along dimensions other than form space, e.g., in ‘colour space’, ‘value space’ or ‘motion space’. 


Caravaggio's innovation was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscurro which came to be known as tenebrism (the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value).

There is clearly a memory-inspired component of aesthetic perception, including, the autobiographical memory of the artist, and of his/her viewer, as well as the viewer’s more general ‘cognitive stock’ brought to his perception of the work. This general cognitive stock includes the viewer’s memory of his encounters with the painting’s etiological forebears, including those works that the artist himself was aware of. Sometimes paintings contain homages to earlier artists and this concept of homage fits what we have theorised about caricature: the later artist makes a caricature of his acknowledged predecessor, but a loving one, rather than the ridiculing practised by the editorial cartoonist. Perhaps some movements in the history of art can be understood as driven by a logic of peak shift: the new art form finds and amplifies the essence of a previous one (sometimes many years previous, in the case of Picasso and African art).

In ‘colour space’ the every day parallel of this would be wearing a yellow scarf with violet flowers if you are wearing a violet skirt; the perceptual grouping of the violet flowers and your violet skirt is aesthetically pleasing — as any fashion designer will tell you. These examples suggest that there may be direct links in the brain between the processes that discover such correlations and the limbic areas which give rise to the pleasurable ‘rewarding’ sensations associated with ‘feature binding’. So when we choose a pale blue matte to frame your painting in order to ‘pick up’ flecks of pale blue in the painting you are indirectly tapping into these mechanisms.

Article by Jennifer Webb, Artist in Residence and Director at Port Art Gallery

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