A brain scan

Scientists from across the globe discuss their research into art’s effect on the brain.

Art on our minds
Anthony Sapp
Written byDaniel Kitts

Daniel Kitts is a digital media producer at TVO.org.

Human beings have been inspired by art for tens of thousands of years. We know art can move us and make us see the world in a different way.

But how does art move us, and in what ways does it make us see?

Thanks to the latest medical-imaging technology, researchers across the world are examining what happens to the brain when a person looks at art. While this field of study has its skeptics, the researchers hope their work will not only help us understand why the human mind is affected by art, but also how art can help people dealing with mental health issues and neurological conditions such as dementia.

“I think that art in the broadest possible sense — including literature and music and painting and sculpture — these are all products of the brain,” says neuroscientist Semir Zeki of University College London. “And to understand them, you have to understand how the brain produces them.”

Lighting up the brain

This burgeoning field is commonly called neuroaesthetics, a term coined by Zeki himself. By having volunteers look at art and listen to music while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, he and colleague Tomohiro Ishizu found that an area at the front of the brain known as the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC) consistently “lights up” when a person looks at or listens to something they consider beautiful.

That’s significant, because while looking at art also engages parts of the brain associated with visual representation and object recognition, the mOFC is part of the pleasure and reward centre of the brain. “This implies that beauty does, indeed, exist as an abstract concept within the brain,” according to a summary of Zeki and Ishizu’s work.

Diagam: visual, auditory and conjuction lit up in a brain scan

(In contrast, if one looks at a piece of art one considers ugly, parts of the amygdala and motor cortex are activated, “as if you were mobilizing the motor system to protect yourself against ugliness,” according to Zeki.)

Emotions, memories, and daydreams

Beyond the medial orbito-frontal cortex, scientists have discovered other parts of the brain are activated when we look at art that moves us.

“For example, there are regions of the brain that process emotions, such as the insula,” says Oshin Vartanian of the department of psychology at the University of Toronto. “Those become activated when a person experiences beauty in artwork.”

For example, there are regions of the brain that process emotions, such as the insula. Those become activated when a person experiences beauty in artwork.”
Oshin Vartanian

The areas involved in forming and storing our memories can also get triggered when looking at art. “When you look at representational art, you typically tend to see landscapes or faces or objects in that,” Vartanian says. “And if you've got some kind of recollection about those objects in your long-term-memory regions in the brain, those also tend to be activated.” For example, looking at Tom Thompson’s 1915 painting Autumn Foliage may engage memories you have of a beautiful fall day, or remind you of a moment in your life where you found yourself in a similar landscape.

Another neural system, called the default mode network, can also be activated. This system is involved in daydreaming and in processing information relevant to the self.

“It could be because the content of the imagery that they're looking at is triggering information that's relevant to the self, or it could be that the default mode network allows them to let their mind wander and daydream about what it is that they've just viewed,” Vartanian says.

Experiencing art ‘in the wild’

Much of the insight we have on the brain’s interaction with art comes from fMRI scanners. They remain incredibly valuable tools for researching the mind. But like any tools, they do have their limits.

One is that people don’t normally experience art while they are lying in a medical scanner.

“Being inside an fMRI scanner, where you are told ‘Do not move,’ you know, and then you hear these noises of the scanner — ‘vroom, vroom,’ — and then you see an image there … you are looking at an image in some very strange conditions,” according to Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston.

Contreras-Vidal wanted to study art’s effect on the brain “in the wild.” He says the context of where you are experiencing the artwork is important. “Because the context can affect how you feel about the painting. The information you know about the painting can also influence your experience.”

What Contreras-Vidal and his team have done is attach electrodes to the heads of people looking at art in various museums. The brain signals that are recorded are then cleaned up (to eliminate extraneous information caused by such things as the blinking of eyes or head movements) and analyzed back at the lab.

Photograph depicting Electrodes

One thing that interests Contreras-Vidal about the data he and his colleagues have gathered is how our experience of art evolves in the brain.

“There is this feedback loop which is important,” he says. “When you are analyzing the symbols, the narratives, engaging with the painting, you are also adding your own memories and feelings, any information that you may know about the author, about the painting, and that information in turn is fed back and alters the way you are perceiving the painting. So this is understanding that the experience is not just a moment in time. It evolves.”

But why?

Despite all this research, in articles with titles such as “Neuroaesthetics is killing your soul,” critics have questioned whether something as transcendental and intangible as experiencing the beauty of art can really be broken down scientifically.

“I would have said that it might have been possible to make the argument a few decades ago that it's very difficult to generate quantifiable data to test the effects of art on behavior, cognition, mood, and brain function,” Vartanian says. “But it's very difficult to make an argument now.”

He points to a wealth of studies that have now been produced on the effect of art on multiple areas of human thought. “You can look at what it does to brain function, you can look at what it does to behavior, you can look at what is the body does to emotion, you can look at what it does to cognition, he says. “So we know that the effect of art is actually measurable.”

But why is it so important to measure it? Zeki lists three goals. The first is to understand why the humans find beauty so rewarding and what happens in the mind when we encounter it. The second is to better understand art itself since art can only be created and appreciated by the human brain.

The third point, which is extremely important, which has now surfaced in a big way over the COVID pandemic, is how rewarding, how transformative, or how nourishing art has been in conditions where people have been isolated”
Semir Zeki, University College, London

“The third point, which is extremely important, which has now surfaced in a big way over the COVID pandemic, is how rewarding, how transformative, or how nourishing art has been in conditions where people have been isolated,” he says.

Contreras-Vidal hopes a greater understanding of how the brain is affected by art and music will help medical professionals know what specific kinds of art or music can offer the best treatment to individual patients.

“The problem is that there is not really a recipe or prescription right now that we can use. There's no way to identify the best stimulus,” he says. “If we can prescribe specific aesthetic stimuli to people with brain injuries or mental illness, and that could help them get better while we understand better their situation, then I think that will be beautiful.”

Vartanian also hopes this research may help all of us to better appreciate art.

“I work with a lot of people who do work in museum studies,” he says. “What a lot of this work involves is trying to optimize people's experiences when they go to a museum. Right now, we actually don't know a lot about what happens when people experience works of art in a particular museum setting. And we also don't know what happens to the experience of art outside of the museum setting. I think this work can eventually lead to ways to optimize how people interact with artwork.”

Read this next

The value of a life in art

Art on our minds
We know that looking at art can refocus your mindset. But how does creating art contribute to joy and fulfilment?
Susan Gosevit, Fallen Branches, 2010, 24x48 acrylic on board.
Read more

Who's afraid of the art gallery?

Art on our minds
Have you ever heard someone say that they’re scared of a song? Or that they're too unsophisticated for a certain film? It may sound ridiculous, yet many people feel this way about visual art.
Two people walk by the entrance to the AGO
Read more

Keep learning on TVO.org


How science is uncovering the secrets of Picasso

New technology has revealed clues to the artist’s process in 'La Miséreuse accroupie'
Read more

Where The Universe Sings (Feature Version)

An intimate portrait of the life and art of Lawren Harris, a founding member of the legendary...
Watch now