Part 2: How the brain processes art

Ask yourself ‘What happens when I look at art?’ and the odds are that you’ll think about how visual art makes you feel, rather than the physical processes that take place in your brain.

Although the neural impact of art remains a fairly mysterious field, interest in the topic is growing within the specialist scientific community – especially in the UK, the US and Canada. As such, our understanding of what actually happens in our brains when we look at art is rapidly increasing.

All visual art begins of course with our eyes. We have over 120 million photoreceptor cells in each eye, each of which has its own visual field and speciality. Some cells, for example, react preferentially to lines or spots of light, which indicate contrast and boundaries.

'Mouette Au Soleil Couchant' by Michel Dumont

'Mouette Au Soleil Couchant' by Michel Dumont

Kate Wade-Brown, Assistant Clinical Neuropsychologist at University Hospital Southampton, explains how the way the eye works can even vary across species. “In giraffes, the fovea – the group of ‘cones’ responsbile for our vision – are located higher in the retina than in humans, as their main area of focus needs to be lower given their height. Some birds of prey have more than one fovea in each eye, which allow simultaneous focus on the environment ahead as well as detecting prey below.”

She goes on to explain the physical process behind our quick-fire perceptions of artwork.

As soon as the lightwaves from a painting reach our retina, the photoreceptor cells transmit electrochemical signals, primarily to the occipital lobes at the back of the brain. Our visual cortex then pulls together all of this light information and allows us to perceive a coherent, richly detailed visual experience – just as the painter intended.
— Kate Wade-Brown, Assistant Clinical Neuropsychologist at University Hospital Southampton

For example, some areas of the cortex analyse where a light source in a scene is located. Our visual systems then interpret some areas as ‘in shadow’, allowing our conscious experience to judge that the colour of the lawn is a similar green throughout – rather than there being just one patch of very dark green at the base of a tree. This is known as colour constancy.”  

Wade-Brown explains that pointillist Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte demonstrates this effect. “Pointillist colours are also often perceived as brighter because they don’t involve pigment mixing,” she says.

'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' by Georges Seurat

'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte' by Georges Seurat

As our understanding of brain biology increases, the implications of visual art’s relationship with the brain role continues to grow within the wider world of academia. John Hyman is professor of aesthetics at Oxford University, whose work includes investigating the connection between aesthetics and neurology.

“Kinetic art specializes in V5, the part of the visual cortex that reacts to motion. Fauve art specializes in V4, which reacts to colors, and work by Mondrian will excite V1, which reacts to horizontal and vertical lines” he says. “The message is that in some cases different kinds of art excite different groups of cells in the brain.”
— John Hyman, professor of aesthetics at Oxford University

After all, as Michelangelo said – ‘A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.’


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.