The Beginning of an Exploratory Project in Neuroesthetics

This is the original image used, artwork by William de Kooning. 


The Beginning of an Exploratory Project in Neuroesthetics


My name is Dheeraj K. Jalluri and I am an undergraduate senior working on an independent project with the Visual Media Workshop under the guidance of Dr. Alison Langmead and Lily Brewer. I have long been interested in the field of “neuroesthetics”, a relatively young field of study that looks at the neural basis of aesthetic experience. Much of the literature theorizes that certain qualities of art, such as contrast, gestalt grouping, symmetry, etc. elicit neural responses such that the viewer finds them aesthetically pleasing (Ramachandran 1999). In my project, I aim to quantitatively analyze artwork in a manner that contributes to neuroesthetics. There are several approaches that I am considering. One approach is to simply use these neuroesthetics theories as a basis to which characteristic(s) to focus on, and look at the characteristic within a time period, artistic movement, etc. Using symmetry as the characteristic, I started with this approach.


I decided to look at symmetry using programs that I already had expertise in, notably Adobe Photoshop. The methodology I came up with is as follows:

  • Find image of artwork and open in Photoshop
  • Find middle axis of image (Photoshop nicely “snags” a marker to the center)
  • Cut and paste half of the image to one side of the axis into a new layer
  • Flip that layer over (vertically or horizontally, depending on orientation of central axis used) and move on top of the other half of the work
  • Put that layer on “Subtract” mode

After the final step here, any areas with the same exact color and value show up as black. This value of black can then be measured or quantified. This method may be done with either original images or gray-scaled images, the latter of which would instead compare symmetry of just value rather than overall color. Attached are examples of what this method looks like with a work by William de Kooning.


This semester I am also taking a course called “Neural Basis of Vision” with Dr. Marlene Cohen. It was a class that I have been excited about taking since I decided on the Neuroscience major at Pitt! Given that she is an expert in visual neuroscience, which I am attempting to use as the basis of my investigation, I asked her for some advice. Through my discussions with both Dr. Cohen and Dr. Douglas Ruff, a postdoctoral associate in her lab, I have discovered many other methods of potentially studying neuroesthetics from different angles. Some examples are using Mechanical Turk to have people rate artwork that varies in some characteristic or creating a code that will perform Fourier Analysis on a set of artworks.   

Given the wealth of already established literature devoted to quantifying art, especially those with implications in neuroscience, I have decided to focus on understanding and learning these methods before continuing on with my previously described Photoshop method. Proper knowledge of these methods may help me in improving my own methods and/or lead to a more interesting focus of study! In my next blog post, I will detail what I have learned and possible next steps in formulating a method of study for my project.



Ramachandran, V. S., and William Hirstein. "The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience." Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 (1999): 15-51.

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