Experiencing Art: Part 1

This first essay in a two-part series examines the human response to art from a brain-science point of view.

By Heike Fallon

Heike Fallon stands in front of a wall
Heike Fallon

Have you ever wondered why individuals experience looking at art so differently? Why does your partner or friend not enjoy looking at paintings the same way that you do?

To begin, I will briefly share some of how a human brain functions.

The brain constantly tries to make sense of the world around it. In every single moment, the brain must decide whether a threat is present, since the organ’s main job is to keep us alive. In order to determine if a threat exists, the brain will take all sensory input (visual, auditory, et cetera) and integrate it by matching it to past experiences, memories, feelings, and emotions. When this extremely fast process is complete, the brain will determine if the current situation is safe and gives us an output. The output can be a variety of responses. For example, we may experience a fast heart rate and literally run away if a threat such as a dangerous wild animal is present.

But if the stimulus is something pleasant and not a threat, the brain releases dopamine (also known as the “feel good hormone”) in response, which may result in a smile and a hug.

Now let’s translate this process to viewing art. When you look at a piece of art, such as “The Long Leg” (1930) by Edward Hopper (below left), the brain recognizes the scene and objects in the artwork. The boat, lighthouse, beach, and water make sense for many of us because they match our past experiences and memories. You may have been on a trip, seen something similar before, or read a book that described this type of scenario. It also matches with past feelings, emotions, smells, and sounds. If you had taken a trip, and it was a wonderful experience, this artwork may recall these emotions, and you will smile and feel good while looking at it. (More on this in Part 2 in the July issue.) It therefore takes less effort for the brain to integrate this art-viewing experience, and the brain can easily determine that you are “safe,” especially if you are someone that needs more structure and certainty.

When you look at abstract or modern art (below right), the brain may have a harder time making sense of what you see. There are potentially no relatable prior experiences from the real world; your brain may have no feelings or emotions that it can recall, since nothing in this artwork has “happened” in your life before. It takes a lot of effort for the brain to integrate all of the input and to determine if you are “safe” or not. Of course, your brain will come to the conclusion that you are currently not in a physically life-threatening situation, since you are sitting at your home, reading this piece. However, your brain may not feel safe in the face of the thoughts you have as you regard the artwork. The effort of trying to make sense of what you see in this piece may be too much (and therefore perceived as a threat), and the “output” will be that you stop looking at the art and might say, “I just don’t like this.” You might look at the artwork pictured here and say, “That it is a metal frame with different colors of hanging fabric. So what?” Because that is the only thing that makes sense for now.

Left: "The Long Leg" (1930) by Edward Hopper, photographed at The Huntington Library. Right: Detail from "Central Color Station" (2019) by Quintessenz.

When a piece is given meaning, however, either via the artwork’s subject matter or even by a descriptive title, you may be able to make a little more sense of it and are more likely to enjoy it.

Most modern art wants to encourage viewers to think about the world differently and beyond normal experiences, and for some brains that is a fantastic stimulus. If you like to be challenged, enjoy being pushed out of your comfort zone, and welcome a lack of structure, then you will likely love this kind of art. It fuels you, and you can’t get enough.

Others are drawn to the art that “makes sense,” since it is more fueling for them and is perceived as less of a threat. They can’t get enough of that type of art.

Each of these ways of perceiving art is appropriate.

Part 2 of this piece will detail how art enhances brain function.

Heike Fallon is an El Segundo resident and owner of Xpand Health on Grand Avenue in El Segundo. Visit her on social media at @xpandhealth.

This column appears in our June 2020 issue.

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