Your Brain on Art

An image of a brain, half of which is shown in black and white and the other half of which is rainbow-colored.

Image credit: Shutterstock

There’s no doubt that we can experience emotional responses to the art we see, whether it’s a classic painting or an interactive museum exhibit. In fact, there are actually scientific studies showing the effect art can have on our brains: sometimes we mimic the actions we see portrayed; sometimes we’re simply more receptive to learning after taking in a great piece of art. Our reaction to the art we experience can have a profound effect on our mood, our psyches, and even our brains.

Any kind of art can have this sort of effect—even art that isn’t part of the more classical canon. Take art school shows, for example. PNCA’s recent MFA show was particularly notable for the visceral reactions it elicited from the visitors who saw it. Willamette Week’s Shannon Gormley noted that the pieces required “a lot of mental energy” and that the artists “ask for all they can from their viewers—and from art itself.” The fact that many of the pieces were multimedia presentations that visitors could physically walk through added to their thought-provoking nature.

There have been plenty of experiments designed to look at how art can elicit emotions and actually affect our brains. One study from 2012 looked at how people reacted to a fresco panel from Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Paradise in which Adam tries to ward off a sword-wielding angel. Using a method called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the researchers watched what happened in the viewers’ brains as they looked at the image.

“Just the sight of [Adam’s] raised wrist causes an activation of the [viewer’s] muscle,” said David Freedberg of Columbia University. In other words, people looking at the painting actually started physically imitating the poses of the characters in it.

The study of how art affects our brains is actually fairly new. It got kicked off in the early 2000s by a book called Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain by British neuroscientist Semi Zeki. Since then, there have been a number of studies looking more deeply into how we react to and think about art.

The most obvious result of these studies, like a 2014 study by Oshin Vartanian and Martin Skov, is the notion that looking at art triggers the part of our brains associated with understanding and object recognition. However, art has also been shown to affect emotions, inner thoughts, and our capacity to learn. We see a painting we particularly like, and almost immediately, blood flow to certain parts of our brains is increased by as much as 10%.

Also worth noting: according to another study of Zeki’s, you don’t have to be an art expert to get this kind of benefit. All you need is to spend some time with some art you love.

Art has even been shown to potentially lower stress levels. A quick trip to an art museum over your lunch break can lead to lower cortisol levels. A study from the University of Westminster found that as little as 35 minutes can do the trick.

So the next time someone tells you your appreciation of art is only in your head…well, they’re not wrong. But there are quantifiable reasons to appreciate art, too.

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