Neuroscientists are taking their work to the canvas in an attempt to explain the previously ineffable sensation of art.
And the results have begun to shed light on what happens to the brain when a person’s observes something beautiful.
Dr. Semir Zeki is at the forefront of research in the niche field of neuroaesthetics. In his lab, people go through brain scans while they observe a series of paintings. The results show that people have a similar reaction to beautiful artwork as they do to seeing a loved one – an increase in blood flow to the brain’s pleasure center.
“What we are doing is giving scientific truth to what has been known for a long time – that beautiful paintings makes us feel much better,” Dr. Zeki told the Telegraph in 2011.
Not everyone is sold on this objective measure for experience. Some worry that this attempt to quantify a complex process like art could lead to a foolish effort to conclude that there is a right or wrong way to feel about a subject that is inherently personal.
“Although it is worth knowing that musical ‘chills’ are neurologically akin to the responses invoked by sex or drugs, an approach that cannot distinguish Bach from barbiturates is surely limited,” Phillip Ball said in his 2013 article “Neuroaesthetics is Killing Your Soul.”
As Ball notes, people have very unique reactions to viewing and creating art. And those reactions can help them process complex issues that they are dealing with. Michael Friedman, a professor at Columbia University, explained this concept.
“Art also helps people to connect with and deal with their emotions,” Friedman said in a 2012 article in the Huffington Post. “Art can help a person reach into largely unconscious parts of the mind and experience dimensions of self otherwise buried and voiceless.”
While observing art can have a positive influence on behavioral health, producing it creates a more significant increase in cognitive functioning. A German study published last month had two groups of 14 adults participate in a 10-week art appreciation course or a hands-on course of the same length. The researchers put the participants through an fMRI before and after their respective courses. The brain scans showed that the hands-on group had a greater increase in cognitive abilities.
The studies presented here can agree on one key point – engaging with the arts in any fashion can be beneficial to one’s cognitive health and functioning.
Alex Kramer is a graduate student in journalism at Stony Brook University in New York. He enjoys reporting on health and science. He studied psychology and philosophy for his undergraduate degree at Brandeis University. He is particularly interested in social psychology research and its practical applications. In his spare time, Alex enjoys long-distance running, he competed in the mile throughout college.
Photo by garlandcannon