The Walters Art Museum and John Hopkins University’s Mind/Brain Institute announce major collaboration

The Walters Art Museum and the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at The Johns Hopkins University announce a collaboration to pioneer a new approach to investigating the neural basis of the human aesthetic experience. On view January 23-April 11, “Beauty and the Brain: A Neural Approach to Aesthetics” will be both an experiment and an exhibition that will strive to discover why some works of art appeal so strongly to the human mind. The project is based on the idea that artists are essentially neuroscientists, searching for new and powerful ways to stimulate perceptual mechanisms in the brain.

“For me, this conversation began with a Walters’ board member and her husband in 2006 about the role of neuroscience in tackling age-old issues regarding the philosophy of aesthetics and why some forms seem more appealing to us than others,” Walters director Gary Vikan said. “Our ultimate goal with this experiment and exhibition is to discover how people recognize and appreciate beauty, which lies at the core of the museum experience.”

After a November 2007 Convening at the Walters to bring together experts in diverse fields and a June 2008 symposium on Perception and Cognition hosted by the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute, Vikan and Charles E. Connor, director of the Mind/Brain Institute, met and began discussing a collaborative relationship between the organizations.

“We are measuring human responses to sculptural shapes as part of a large-scale project across five laboratories, funded by the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute, to study the neural basis of aesthetics. The critical innovation in this project is mathematical quantification and manipulation of artistic objects, which allow us to measure what subjects find beautiful and relate those measurements to neural responses,” said Connor. “We will continue our sculptural aesthetics experiment as an exhibition this winter at the Walters. We look forward to a long-term collaboration between the Mind/Brain Institute and the Walters, which provides artistic expertise and access, as well as a potentially large pool of respondents in the form of museum visitors.”

“How music impacts the brain has been a fruitful area of neuroscience research for years. The efforts of Ed Connor analyzing the perception of sculpture heralds a new era in the field of neuroaesthetics. His work portends a day when we will understand how the brain mediates the creative process, a prospect with immense consequences for all areas of human endeavor,” said Solomon Snyder, founding chairman of the Department of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Professor of Neuroscience.

“The research partnership between the Walters Art Museum and the Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins holds the promise of important new discoveries in the field of neuroaesthetics,” said Barry Braverman, former Senior Vice President, Executive Producer, Walt Disney Imagineering. “This collaboration will yield new insights into what is taking place in the brains of museum visitors as they experience works of art-insights that have the potential to radically transform the practice of art exhibition.”

During the Walters’ exhibition, visitors will be invited to explore “aesthetic spaces” created by digitally morphing original works of art. Subject areas will include modern abstract sculptures by renowned 20th-century artist Jean Arp. Responses from participants will be used to analyze how 3-D shape characteristics define aesthetic preference. The results will form the basis for future experiments funded by the Hopkins Brain Science Institute in which human brain responses to aesthetic objects will be measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The Walters Art Museum is located in Baltimore’s historic Mount Vernon Cultural District at North Charles and Centre streets. Its permanent collection includes ancient art, medieval art and manuscripts, decorative objects, Asian art and Old Master and 19th-century paintings. Peabody Court is the official hotel of the Walters Art Museum. For hotel reservations, call 1-800-292-5500.

The Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute is a free standing institute at The Johns Hopkins University with strong connections to the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and to the School of Medicine. The institute is dedicated to the study of the neural mechanisms of higher brain functions using modern neurophysiological, anatomical and computational techniques.

This exhibition is funded in part by The Johns Hopkins University Brain Science Institute.

PHOTO CAPTIONS: Jean Arp, La dame de Delos (The Woman of Delos), 1959, plaster, 14 5/8 x 18 7/8 x 9 ½ inches, Adler & Conkright Fine Art, New York To access images: the username is murrow, and the password is london.

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