Part 1: What are the brain benefits of looking at art?

For thousands of years, art has played an integral part in the everyday lives of human beings – from a means of self-expression and communication, to more unusual purposes like transmitting codes or even asking favours of gods.

But beyond the emotional and societal aspects of art creation and appreciation, how does visual art benefit our brains?

Helping us process information better

From early childhood onwards, creating artwork is encouraged as a way to help us understand and visualise the most meaningful elements of both our real lives and our imaginations.


And for adults, making or looking at art performs this same role; using painting or drawing as a therapeutic catalyst to help gain new perspectives, express ourselves and achieve calm.

Scientists have come one step closer to proving the biology that underlies this effect.


Neurological researchers at the University of Toronto showed painted art to 330 participants in 7 countries while they underwent MRI scans. The study’s results clearly showed that looking at art led to increased activity in the brain systems that ‘underlie the conscious processing of new information to give it meaning’.

So in other words, looking at art helps us to understand the world around us better.

Making us feel good

Almost all of us have experienced the surprisingly strong rush of good feelings that looking at certain pieces of art can trigger. This rush of positivity is more than just a basic appreciation of colour or form – it’s actually an inevitable neurological effect.

Professor Semir Zeki, chair in neuroaesthetics at University College London, proved this in a study. His team ran a series of tests where MRI scans were taken as people looked at 30 works of art. Each piece of art was placed by the research team on a spectrum of conventionally ‘beautiful’ (John Constable, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Guido Reni) to ‘ugly’ (Hieronymus Bosch, Honore Damier, Quinten Massys).

It found that "when you look at art – whether it is a landscape, a still life, an abstract or a portrait – there is strong activity in that part of the brain related to pleasure. The blood flow to the brain increased for a beautiful painting just as it increases when you look at somebody you love. It tells us art induces a feel good sensation direct to the brain."

This is also reflected with by the results of the University of Toronto study, where researchers found that brain regions associated with vision, pleasure and emotions are consistently triggered by looking at pieces of art.

Improving our perception skills

A New York University study carried out by neuroscientist Dr Edward Vessel looked for patterns in people’s reactions to 109 different works of art.

Although our personal opinions are highly subjective – the brain decides whether it likes or dislikes a piece of art in under 330 milliseconds, or as long as a camera flash – there were some some unexpected neurological results.

“The most powerfully engaging works of art appeared to trigger brain regions in the frontal cortex that are involved in introspective thought, as well as nearby regions usually directed at more outward matters. The two areas usually don’t activate simultaneously. That is a very rare state,” Dr. Vessel said.

In other words, art is almost unique in unlocking multiple perception skills at once.

Some experts interpret these results as implying that our brains are in fact ‘hardwired’ to appreciate art.
 

Helping our bodies to re-balance

Art is a proven way of helping us de-stress and improve our brain function and thinking patterns. It can also improve our physical wellbeing, with studies identifying a link between looking at art and the normalisation of heart rate, blood pressure and even cortisol levels.

Plus, gazing at art – even for a minute a day – represents a chance to switch off and to give our brains and bodies a moment to pause, reflect and refresh.

Storm Clouds, Harris by Jonathan Dumigan

Storm Clouds, Harris by Jonathan Dumigan

Day Break by Lorraine Benton

Day Break by Lorraine Benton


At Little Van Gogh, we’re proud to exhibit the work of over 700 artists in workspaces all over Europe. Our Make Art Accessible campaign in 2016 is all about promoting access to art for everyone – be it in public spaces, at home or at work.