In his new book The Age of Insight, Nobel-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel explains why we love a painting like Klimt's "Judith," the famous depiction of the beheading of Holofernes. An excerpt via Alexander Kafka:
At a base level, the aesthetics of the image's luminous gold surface, the soft rendering of the body, and the overall harmonious combination of colors could activate the pleasure circuits, triggering the release of dopamine. If Judith's smooth skin and exposed breast trigger the release of endorphins, oxytocin, and vasopressin, one might feel sexual excitement. The latent violence of Holofernes's decapitated head, as well as Judith's own sadistic gaze and upturned lip, could cause the release of norepinephrine, resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure and triggering the fight-or-flight response. In contrast, the soft brushwork and repetitive, almost meditative, patterning may stimulate the release of serotonin. As the beholder takes in the image and its multifaceted emotional content, the release of acetylcholine to the hippocampus contributes to the storing of the image in the viewer's memory. What ultimately makes an image like Klimt's 'Judith' so irresistible and dynamic is its complexity, the way it activates a number of distinct and often conflicting emotional signals in the brain and combines them to produce a staggeringly complex and fascinating swirl of emotions.
Kafka surveys Kandel's place in the field of neuroaesthetics:
Neuroaesthetics isn't, its pioneers say, just an elaborate parlor trick: Hey, look at this nude, or this Henry Moore sculpture, and this circuit over here lights up. Rather, it is fundamental to an understanding of human cognition and motivation. Art isn't, as Kandel paraphrases a concept from the late philosopher of art Denis Dutton, "a byproduct of evolution, but rather an evolutionary adaptation—an instinctual trait—that helps us survive because it is crucial to our well-being." The arts encode information, stories, and perspectives that allow us to appraise courses of action and the feelings and motives of others in a palatable, low-risk way.
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)