'Creation of Adam' in Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo

‘Creation of Adam’ in Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo

As Christians believe man is made in God’s image, it follows that the human brain should contain at least a few revelations of divine personality and traits. One of these appears to be a deep appreciation of art.

Researchers from Emory University School of Medicine in 2011 announced that our brains are innately and almost universally wired to enjoy art. Hard data and research backs up their assertions.

Emory scientists observed that a part of the brain (ventral striatum) becomes extremely active while viewing visual art, but not with similar images of other types, including photographs. This brain region is integral to reward and decision-making and also is involved with cognition, motivation, risk and novelty. This is significant stuff, and a blow to those who feel art is only a cultural crutch for people with too much time on their hands.

Example of painting vs. photograph for Emory Medical School study in 2011

Example of painting vs. photograph for Emory Medical School study in 2011

Participants viewed sundry images from celebrated artists, including Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh and Klee, as well as unknown artists they had never seen before. Photographers matched these paintings with very similar scenes from real life-human, landscapes and abstracts. (I’d love to see the Picasso; it would have been a challenge to recreate). While viewing these, brain activities and blood flow were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). To avoid study bias, researchers asked no opinions about the art from participants.

Results showed a stunning (biological) preference for art over other images of all types, across the board. Apparently we are wired in various, interrelated parts of our brains to react positively to art as a whole. Emory’s team found this was true even when viewers disliked the art itself. This buoyed their hypothesis that the “appeal of visual art involves activation of reward circuitry based on artistic status alone and independently of its hedonic value.”

But wait, there’s more!

They still prefer the painting to the real girl; images from a study at University of Dayton in 2014

They still prefer the painting to the real girl; images from a study at University of Dayton in 2014

Earlier studies discovered brain regions that react to personal judgements on the “beautiful” or “ugly” – specifically the hypothalamus, amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex. These are entwined in a host of critical human functions and feelings such as learning, memory, emotions, mood, drive, responsibility, social adjustment and even homeostasis. All these appear to be involved in the act of making aesthetic choices and appreciating art. It’s bigger than we thought.

Originally the study focused on marketing studies by Henrik Hagtvedt and Vanessa Patrick, who found that paintings used on products or advertising made them more appealing to the general public. Hagtvedt is a painter and art historian who helped choose images for this study.

Hagtvedt explained that art represents “a distinct, universal and recognizable category of human behavior … not characterized by what is depicted, but by how it is depicted.”

So it appears that art of any type evinces a unique set of responses deep within the wiring of our brains. While science can’t fully explain such things, it notes correlations and reactions.

Emory’s team used men and women from diverse backgrounds and education, and lead author Simon Lacey explained why. “If the participants in the study were all art historians, or [all] came from a developing country” without exposure to Western art or museums, they may show different patterns of brain activity, exclusive for them. This was a broader cross section.

'Narcissus' by Caravaggio, and real-life replica; images from a study at University of Dayton in 2014

‘Narcissus’ by Caravaggio, and real-life replica; images from a study at University of Dayton in 2014

Lead author Krish Sathian came up with a weak and implausible explanation for their findings. Reward circuits “evolved to shape our brains’ decision making” and reinforce beneficial decisions, he claimed.

“We find that the brain’s responses to art may have a connection to the reward circuit and perceptions of luxury or social status, independent of whether an individual rates the image in question highly.”

So cave paintings and pottery designs somehow led to a “perception of luxury”? Temples in 5,000 years and BMWs a bit later? Evolution is a rough task master for our poor scientists.

Eventually mental and physical illness could be a least partially treated with art. Consider that the same reward circuits activated by gambling, addictions, OCD, drugs and so on are apparently “rewarded” by a glance at artwork. Several areas of the brain work together in a complex manner, calming some regions and exciting others, while more discoveries may be in the offing. Will trips to a museum or art gallery suffice for counseling or replace medication someday?

Expect to see more paintings and graphic designs by advertising firms who keep up with science. Their best bets are popular art genres or older paintings that proved their staying power. Then a significant portion of our brains are drafted into action, even against our will.

Such is the power of art – and only God knows why.


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