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Colloquium Explores Beauty and the Brain

By Steven Dawson

Panelists at Beauty and the Brain colloquium

Why are Monet, Picasso, and Dali so popular? What makes their combinations of shapes and colors any better than the combination that a kindergartner creates at school? According to panelists at the Spring Arts Management Colloquium at American University, it’s all about the brain.

The February 22 colloquium, titled “Beauty and the Brain,” explored the growing field of neuroaesthetics, with an emphasis on the visual brain. The event began with a lecture by artist Shahin Shikhaliyev, whose work was recently showcased in the Kreeger Lobby of the Katzen Arts Center.

Shikhaliyev was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and earned his degree in visual arts from Azerbaijan State Art College. Most noted for his oil paintings, his work includes black-and-white drawings, etchings, and video. He has also collaborated on multiple large-scale public art projects.

Shikhaliyev’s recent work explores the evolutionary development of visual perception and the science of the mind. His paintings represent the reality of what the brain perceives at the earliest moments of sight, before one’s brain forms the image. He is primarily concerned with the transfer of optical energy, as well as the interplay between sight and the other systems of the brain that control concept and meaning. He thinks of his paintings as charged with his own energy, and he believes that they are alive and engaging the people and environments around them.

In his lecture, Shikhaliyev discussed how the brain recognizes and interprets line, shape, perceived motion, and light within a piece of art. “It’s not really what you draw; it is how your drawing is perceived,” he said.

Shikhaliyev’s lecture was followed by a panel discussion. Joining the artist on the panel was Terry Davidson, AU psychology professor and director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, and Arthur Shapiro, an AU psychology professor who specializes in visual perception and cognitive neuroscience. The panel was moderated by AU Arts Management professor Andrew Taylor.

“What we try to understand is the relationship between the brain function and behavioral function,” Davidson said. “And behavioral function includes things like learning, memory, emotion, and perception.”

Shapiro’s work is similar but focuses more on the visual system of the brain. “I am interested in understanding the relationship between the physical world and the biology of the visual system and how that translates into how we perceive the world,” he stated during the panel.

“I also want to understand the cellular structure of the visual system and what happens when light is changed into something biological. We look at paintings and we think we see lines and shapes, but in reality our brain is responding to signals and reactions from our eyes.”

Also discussed were how certain types of art and stimuli activate particular areas of the brain, how the brain interprets the different stimuli, and how adding or subtracting aspects to a piece of art can completely change how it is perceived.

Another interesting topic was how the brain functions when a person perceives beauty. According to Shapiro, the frontal cortex of the brain increases its activity at these times. “It looks like when you make a beauty judgment, those areas of the brain are particularly important. This area of the brain is very involved in decisions and the value process.”

More information about the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience is available online. For more information and news about the Arts Management Program at AU, visit its website.