Beauty and the Brain – Dr Tiffany Jenkins – Radio 4 22nd January 2014

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Assignment 2 - Selected Projects, Assignment 3 - Ralph Gibson Critical Review, Assignment 3/4/5 Major Project - Isolation, Background Reading, persuasive document, Research The Subject of isolation, Supporting Activities

This program helped provide some information on the psychology of beauty, but also how our brains react to images in general. It doesn’t, directly contribute to any of the assignments or my main project, but it does focus in on the elements that are needed to make a photograph stand out, and to help explain why Ralph Gibson’s nude images works so well.
Dr Jenkins starts by defining ‘neuro-aesthetics’ which looks at why our brains respond to beauty, how we scan a beautiful image/person and what lights up our brain when this beauty trigger is fired.
The program suggest that beauty is not easy to define as it changes based on the object – art, a person, music, poem etc, however it does create common feelings such as ‘ the wow’ factor which can be visceral, intellectual or a pit of the stomach sensation.
Professor Zekt from UCL, conducted an interesting test in the National Gallery where he asked people to describe why they thought a painting, (Van Gough’s sunflowers ), was beautiful, and he found that they rarely responded the same way.
The reason for this is that the eye is only responsible for around 30% of the input, and that this split the information between colour, form, motion and texture. The other 70% is how we process the information in terms of our culture, experiences and our state of mind at the time.
He also discovered that this subjective experience is common throughout the world and that the medial frontal / inter-temporal cortex of the Brian is the primary area that is triggered – Our Limbic system. This is our emotional sensory area of our brains, that has evolved with time, from being triggered by the sounds of a predator, the colour of blood, and the search for a mate – the latter being the one that beauty primarily affects.
Professor Star from New York University explored the characteristics of beauty, and found that the it tended to flick the ‘default mode’ switch in our brains that took us away from the ‘real’ world, and into one where we interacted with the image before use. This could take on many forms such as triggering past memories, to future desires.
Martin Kemp from Christies the auctioneers also discussed what makes a picture desirable and beautiful in the art world, and how the power of opinion and perception can have a significant effect on whether one see a work of art as beautiful or not. For me the most interesting piece was the experiment he did with an original Rembrandt painting where he told half of the group that the painting was the original and half that it was potentially a fake. He then analysed the brain patterns and collected their verbal responses when they were observing the painting. The key findings were that different areas of the brain were triggered if they thought it was real, and hence a different emotional connection.
This point feeds well with John Berger’s Ways of Seeing where he discussed the effect of reproducibility and our emotional response to it.


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At a practical level, a good photograph is more about being in the right place at the right time and knowing what to take then the type of camera, skill and technique. My ambition is to show how anyone with a camera can produce great photographs when they visit London.

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