LOS ANGELES — If you’re reading this, you probably know the feeling. You’ve just fell in love with a work of art. A real work of art. It might be a painting, a sculpture. You stare and stare and you feel your heart pound and maybe even your eyes well up. And then a friend next to you says … “Huh?”

The way art touches us remains a mystery, but some studies are pointing to what might be going on underneath our noggins. Folks at NYU gathered a variety of art works, from different cultural and historical traditions and with mixed subject matter. And they took out the most recognizable works.

Volunteers — who were selected for varying level of experience in art and art history — answered the question “How strongly does this painting move you?” while under an fMRI. What’s not surprising is that subjects varied widely in terms of which paintings moved them and how much they were moved. But what didn’t vary was the part of their brain that lit up.

Here’s what Futurity.org had to say:

However, for paintings receiving a “4” — indicating a piece truly moved a subject — fMRI results showed the engagement of an additional neurological process. While subjects varied in which paintings received “4s,” the brains of all subjects showed a significant increase in activity in a specific network of frontal and subcortical regions in response to artworks they reported as highly moving.

This activity included several regions belonging to the brain’s “default mode network” (DMN), which had previously been associated with self-referential mentation.

What on earth is self-referential mentation? As the article explains, the part of your brain that lights up to art is also the part of the brain thinking about “personally relevant matters,” like when we daydream or think about the future. In other words, art really does touch a part of ourselves.

Image: From Discovery Education’s Clip Art Gallery and created by illustrator Mark A. Hicks.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice. 

3 replies on “What Part of Your Brain Falls in Love With Art?”

  1. I would be interested to see how these finding might change (or not) based on a different context – say in a museum rather than an online database. 

  2. This made me think of an article I just read by E.O. Wilson for Harvard Magazine
    “On the Origins of the Arts”
    Maybe the “new aesthetic” is less about QR codes and more about advances in technology allowing us to really grasp the neurological function of art.

    The most interesting point made in the article is the idea of 20 percent redundancy:
    “neurobiological monitoring, in particular measurements of the damping of alpha waves during perceptions of abstract designs, have shown that the brain is most aroused by patterns in which there is about a 20 percent redundancy of elements or, put roughly, the amount of complexity found in a simple maze, or two turns of a logarithmic spiral, or an asymmetric cross…
    The same level of complexity characterizes part of what is considered attractive in primitive art and modern abstract art and design. The source of the principle may be that this amount of complexity is the most that the brain can process in a single glance, in the same way that seven is the highest number of objects that can be counted at a single glance.”

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