Story at a glance

  • Advanced scanning technology has allowed scientists to better understand what’s going on inside our brains when we experience art—and it’s a lot.
  • Studies show that context and setup matter when we experience art.
  • Art viewing has been associated with increasing blood flow to the brain, and art installations in hospitals have been found to decrease patient anxiety, blood pressure, length of stay and the need for medication.

Have you ever looked at a painting or listened to a symphony and felt sort of, well, weird inside? Don’t worry, scientists say the feeling is completely normal. In fact, experiencing art might even be good for you.

There’s no one definition for what art is, of course. And a person could spend the rest of their life arguing about its constraints.

But most Paleolithic archeologists agree that humans have been making the stuff for at least 40,000 years. Evocative doodles have been found etched into the walls of pretty much every cave.

Which also means that humans have been looking at — and maybe even critically evaluating — art for millennia. But just recently scientists have developed tools allowing us to see what’s happening inside the human brain when it sees something truly artistic.

“One of the things that has interested me most is when you see somebody lifting a weight, or indeed when you see somebody running, we now know that the motor cortex is activated,” says David Freedberg, the Pierre Matisse Professor of History of Art at Columbia University.

The same thing happens with emotions. When you watch a scary movie, your amygdala — the part of the brain that processes emotions — fires up as though the brain believes the body is truly about to be eaten by a giant, doll-eyed shark.

“So it doesn’t take much to ask yourself the same question. Does this happen when you see a frightening face in a work of art, like Caravaggio’s Head of Medusa?” says Freedberg.

Peering into the brain

Thanks to technologies like functional MRI scans, electroencephalograms (EEGs), and transcranial magnetic stimulation, Freedberg says we now know that disgust is linked to activity in the anterior insula region of the brain.

But are these neurological responses truly different from the things the brain is doing on a normal basis?

“It’s interesting you should ask that question,” says Oshin Vartanian, a cognitive neuroscientist in the psychology department at the University of Toronto.

Vartanian pointed to a study published in 2011 that showed participants two sets of images — one that was clearly art made up of various paintings and drawings, and one that was simply composed of photographs that closely mimicked the subjects in the first set. (And not even artistic photographs, by the way. We’re talking about a poorly composed, uninteresting picture of lampposts and a photo of a pale, shirtless man without even the benefit of an Instagram filter.)

Anyway, what the researchers found was that the human brain processed these images differently. While the nonartistic images created activity in pretty typical areas of the brain that have to do with vision or image recognition, the artistic images lit up regions of the brain responsible for computing value and reward. Even though the participants were selected because they had no formal art training, the findings suggest that their brains were processing and evaluating the artwork in a way that was not replicated for the more literal photographs.

“I think when you look at art, there is a certain sense of awareness you have that you are looking at something as an artwork, and looking at it as an artwork impacts the way in which you value it,” says Vartanian.

Context is key

Expectations also change the way we experience art, as shown by Vartanian’s own research. In one study, published in 2009, he showed participants a series of classic art pieces, but only after prepping them with two sets of instructions. One set asked the participants to think about the art pieces pragmatically. That is, Vartanian wanted them to try to remain objective and simply observe each piece as it was literally. Conversely, the second set of instructions asked the participants to think about the piece aesthetically — “to allow themselves to experience all the emotions and feelings that come with viewing art,” says Vartanian.

Of course, the second set of conditions produced activity in the bilateral insula region of the brain, which is associated with the experience of emotion, while the other set of conditions did not.

Similarly, another study found that participants’ brains reacted differently to works of art when they were told that they’d been made in Photoshop, even if that was not true and the artworks were authentic.

All of which leads to an interesting question — would viewing a piece of artwork in a gallery or museum actually be more powerful, neurologically speaking, than looking at the same canvas hanging on the wall of a department store or represented by pixels on a computer screen?

“I think this is why people like going to the museum because you come in and your entire mindset changes the moment you enter,” says Vartanian. “Almost anything you see inside the museum is interpreted as a work of art. And that impacts your experience.”

Clearly, the human brain is complex, and there is still much we don't understand about the organ. But it should be noted that there may be practical applications for this kind of research. 

For instance, art viewing has been associated with increasing blood flow to the brain by up to 10 percent. And art installations in hospitals have been found to decrease patient anxiety, blood pressure, length of stay and the need for medications, according to Stanford Hospital, which this fall opened a new facility with floor-to-ceiling windows in every patient room and more than 400 works of art.

Freedberg says there’s even some growing evidence that art may help those with Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia experience slight improvements in memory.

“It’s more about the sense of possibility within the body,” he says. “That’s what’s interesting, how the body actually works and what art can do to alleviate stress on the body.”

So far, the field is wide open, says Freedberg. But if someone were to put up the money, he says he’s confident the findings would follow.

Published on Dec 04, 2019