We aren’t going to sugar coat it. Things are rough out there.
After nine months of navigating life in a pandemic, we’re now experiencing the worst wave yet. And everyone is looking for some sort of relief for our frazzled brains.
Have you tried looking at a painting or sculpture?
It might sound weird, but mounting research shows that viewing art helps your brain. And that’s good news because looking at art is so accessible.
Neuroscientists Find Viewing Art Helps Your Brain
Whether you’re walking through an art museum, the halls of an arts academy high school, or leafing through an art book, you’re bound to find some pieces that speak to you more than others. And you often can’t give a reason.
What is it in art that evokes these emotional and physical reactions?
This is what neuroscientists working in the field of neuroaesthetics want to determine. And though they don’t believe they’ll ever truly solve the mystery of humankind’s deep connection with art, they are actively looking at how the brain reacts to viewing art.
And it’s pretty fascinating.
The Mighty Delta and Gamma Waves
Two of the major networks of the brain are the Delta and the Gamma bands. Delta waves are associated with our ability to make decisions and stay focused for long amounts of time. Gamma wave activity is strongly linked to cognition and information processing.
Neuroscientist found that when subjects looked at art, there was a significant increase in the brain’s delta wave connectivity and an even more impressive increase in the brain’s gamma wave activity.
What’s more, researchers found that while subjects were viewing art, there was an overlap between the connected regions in these two networks. This strongly suggests that looking at art creates an interdependency of visual and emotional processing.
And if a subject was viewing a piece that was particularly moving to them, the network of brain regions activated overlapped with the regions of the brain associated with self-reflection.
Breaking Down How Viewing Art Helps Your Brain
To simplify, any time your brain takes in patterns, abstract forms, and incomplete information, it strives to discern some sort of familiarity from these. And it’s remarkably good at this.
When you look at art, it’s the same situation. Whether it’s a photorealistic drawing or a collection of triangles and circles, your brain is stimulated to organize patterns and make sense of what it sees.
If you view a painting by Seurat or Mondrian, for example, the part of your brain that derives joy from solving puzzles is stimulated. Multiple areas of the brain must work together to make sense of the piece. And when it does, it creates a feeling of satisfaction.
Plus, specific areas in the frontal lobe interact in such a way to integrate experience, memory, and learning. So in a sense, art functions as an extension of brain function. They are both seeking knowledge in a constantly changing world.
The Physiological Benefits
For whatever reason, when we are in the presence of awe, beauty, and wonder, it appears to promote healthier cytokine production.
Yeah, that sounds pretty scientific. To simplify it for you, cytokines are a large group of proteins, peptides, or glycoproteins that play a role in mediating and regulating immunity and inflammation. When their production is in balance, we have an increased ability to ward off illness and disease and experience less pain.
And any time we feel less pain or suffer fewer illnesses, it boosts our mental state. Plus, experiencing awe and wonder gives us a sense of fulfilment and hope.
And hope is what we’re all hanging onto these days.
So What’s the Best Way to View Art?
This may sound like a silly question. You just open your eyes and look at it, right?
Well, there’s a multi-step process involved. And your brain’s initial reaction to a piece of artwork is only the first step. The next step is to keep your brain active and engaged. It can be all too easy to walk away and move onto the next piece.
Try instead to really be with the piece. Describe, either out loud or in your head, what you’re seeing. You may also talk about what you’re not seeing.
Ask yourself what the piece represents to you and what it says about the artist. Compare it to other works you’ve viewed. How can you relate it to your life’s experiences? If possible, discuss the work with others.
Taking the time to analyze a piece of art more deeply will help to stimulate both your conscious and unconscious brain functions, with the added benefit of increasing your analytical and problem-solving skills.
At the time of this post’s publication, it’s not possible to go to a museum, art fair, or even a gallery. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other sources for viewing art.
Books are a wonderful resource. They give you the opportunity to view just one or two pieces per day and really absorb, analyze, and learn about the piece. If you’re not in the position to buy books right now, many libraries are offering curbside pick up.
You could also take a break from whatever you’re binge-watching (no judgment here, we get it!) and queue up your go-to streaming app to find an art documentary. There are a ton of them out there and it might surprise you how much better you feel after watching it.
Don’t Lose Hope!
There’s light at the end of the tunnel.
In the meantime, take advantage of your newly acquired knowledge that viewing art helps your brain. Give yourself a little time each day to stimulate your delta and gamma waves.
And don’t be surprised if you start feeling happier and more hopeful.