Shiela Reaves’ office is exactly what you’d imagine a professor’s office to look like: cozily collegiate with books everywhere. There is an entire wall made up of bookshelves and there are stacks of books on the two desks in the office. When I mentioned to Reaves that I was interested in neuroaesthetics, the science of the visual brain, she began to whirl about her office, plucking books from piles and from the shelves.
Reaves is a professor in the Life Sciences Communication department. The beauty of the Life Sciences Communication faculty is that they dabble in many fields; in academic terms, they’re highly interdisciplinary. Reaves is no exception. Her academic research lies in a field called “neuroaesthetics.” Neuroaesthetics studies how our visual brain processes images, specifically art and photography.
But she certainly didn’t start there. Reaves began her career as a photojournalist after she discovered her passion for photography at the age of eighteen. When she was job-hunting after graduation, she had a fateful interview with Chuck Scott, the former director of photography at the Chicago Tribune. After their interview, he asked Reaves if she had any questions.
“I had won some awards and I knew what I was doing. But when I asked Chuck Scott, ‘What makes a good picture?’ he muttered for a while and then said, ‘Action and emotion.’ It was the best answer I’ve found. That really guided my career. It all boils down to action and emotion,” said Reaves.
Reaves eventually ended up at The Capital Times. “Ten years of photojournalism full time, but it was a wonderful way to spend your twenties. It’s very demanding, always looking for a parking spot under deadline and you can never plan your day because there might be a hostage shoot-out,” Reaves said. She saw the look of shock on my face. “No, that really happened.”
In those ten years, Reaves proved her abilities as a brilliant photographer. The photograph she took at the hostage shoot-out won her photo essay of the year. “I knew how to think about photos. Like, what makes a good picture, what kind of picture puts the reader in the situation?”
“I would’ve gone to another newspaper, because I was ambitious, but the problem was, I fell in love with Madison,” said Reaves. She attended graduate school and kept falling into university appointments.
However, Reaves never stopped trying to answer the question “What makes a good photograph?” “I never got tired of the question. Frankly, there wasn’t a better answer than Chuck Scott’s. There were theories, but never answers,” said Reaves.
Then came the decade of the brain, otherwise known as the 1990s. “[Antonio] Damasio came out with books. He gave the reason for why the body responds; it’s because the emotional brain responds before the thinking brain. I know what that means because when I’m moving to take a picture, you don’t have time to think, you just move,” said Reaves.
In 2001, Semir Zeki coined the term “neuroaesthetics.” Zeki believed that neuroscience had much to learn from master artists because these artists had intuited visual brain principles.
According to Anjan Chatterjee in an article titled “Neuroaesthetics: A Coming of Age Story,” “[Zeki] suggested that the goals of the nervous system and of artists are similar. Both are driven to understand essential visual attributes of the world. The nervous system decomposes visual information into such attributes as color, luminance and motion. Similarly, many artists, particularly within the last century, isolate and enhance different visual attributes.”
In a paper from Science magazine in 2001, Zeki explained two laws that master artists followed. The first was the “law of constancy.” Because the visual brain attempts to see form and function, artists, such as the Cubists and Picasso, tease this out with lines, shapes and bold forms. The second law is the “law of abstraction.” Artists play to the brains natural tendency to abstract. The surrealist paintings of the early 20th century are a prime example: they allowed viewers to absorb the abstraction and then interpret it in whichever way they desired.
The fledgling field of neuroaesthetics seemed to have proven the best answer to Reaves’ question “What makes a good photo?” When Scott responded “action and emotion” in his office in Chicago so many years before, neither he nor Reaves could have known that neuroscientists would find the answer.
Reaves has rephrased her question a bit. “Instead of asking what makes a good picture, I now ask what attracts the visual brain. There are major core principles, like lines, contrast, color, motion and depth,” said Reaves.
Today, Reaves continues to study photography and the brain, but she “humbly” keeps to the first two seconds. She studies how humans react to images we see in the media, such as the photoshopped female body. She looks at the ethics of the digital age. She researches how we view science images in the media. In short, her work transcends the journalism realm and falls squarely into “interdisciplinary.”
Reaves’ story also taught me a valuable lesson as I approach graduation and an uncertain future. Her career path is my definition of success: she made her passion for photography the center of her professional career and she followed it so fully and asked such provocative questions that forty years later, she’s still pursuing it.
Before I left Reaves’ office, I had to disentangle myself from a pile of books that she’d collected for me. She warned me that while interdisciplinary work is rewarding, it also has pitfalls. According to Reaves, in order to fully understand two fields that you dabble in, you must know the core. To get to the core of neuroaesthetics, she recommended that I read works by the leading scientists in the field. I have included those books below if you, dear reader, are interested in neuroaesthetics. I’ve also included a couple of handy articles that Reaves mentioned.
“Neuroaesthetics: A Coming of Age Story,” by Anjan Chatterjee in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
“Artistic Creativity and the Brain,” by Semir Zeki in Science
“The Feeling of What Happens” by Antonio Damasio
“The Aesthetic Brain” by Anjan Chatterjee