Humans Evolved to Be Moved by Art

New research shows that while people respond to art for very different reasons, the ability to be moved in the first place is universal

art museum
Sergi Reboredo/dpa/Corbis

There’s a lot going on in the brain of a person experiencing a painting, movie or other piece of art. But it doesn’t matter whether the art in question is aesthetically pleasing: in fact, sometimes that’s why art is enjoyable. Now, writes Jessica Herrington for SciArt in America, researchers have found evidence that humans evolved to be moved by art — whether they like it or not.

Aesthetic taste presents a conundrum for neuroscientists: Most seek out some kind of artistic experience in their life, even if it’s as basic as having a favorite band. However, the many ways in which people engage with art are subjective, coming down to individual tastes.

Intrigued by these differences, writes Herrington, a group of neuroscientists at New York University took a look at what happens in the brain when people look at art by examining the neurological pathways responsible for taste.

“Differences in subjective experience may arise not only from differences in the emotions that a given artwork evokes, but also from how different individuals weigh these emotions,” researchers Edward A. Vessel, G. Gabrielle Starr and Nava Rubin write in the study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The team showed subjects a variety of art as their brains were scanned. While participants’ feelings about the art ranged from joy to disgust, the study found that many of them showed similar levels of brain activity, especially if they felt personally connected to the art, Herrington writes. Researchers concluded that while people are moved by art for very different reasons, the ability to be moved in the first place is universal.

While more research needs to be done to figure out why people’s artistic tastes vary so much, the new research lends credence to the theory that humans evolved to seek out art for its emotional rush. Now, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience is putting out a call for more research that studies why people have such disparate experiences with art. There may soon be scientific evidence for why artists from Georges Seurat to Taylor Swift have the power to make people grit their teeth in agony — or smile in delight.

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