Experiencing Art, Part 2: How Art Affects the Brain

This second essay in a two-part series examines art’s effect on the human brain, particularly the limbic system.

By Heike Fallon

In the June issue of The El Segundo Scene, I explained how the human brain interprets the experience of viewing art.

In Part 2, you’ll learn how viewing art has an effect on the neuroplasticity (changing and growth of neural connections) of the brain.

An increasing amount of scientific evidence proves art enhances brain function. Art has an impact on brain-wave patterns, emotions, and the nervous system, and it can actually increase serotonin and dopamine production. Art can change a person’s brain and the way they experience the world.

When an artwork is viewed, the image is formed via visual input. Many visual areas in the occipital lobe are activated to appreciate the shape, size, form, and color of the artwork, and the final result is the activation of the limbic system. The limbic system is not a single brain structure but rather an interacting group of brain structures that are vital for the function of memory, learning, motivation, and emotion, as well as for some autonomic functions.

More specifically, serotonin and dopamine are two neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that are released when viewing art. Both are considered “happy hormones” thanks to the roles they play in regulating mood and emotion. They also play an integral role in sleep, metabolism and appetite, cognition and concentration, hormonal activity, body temperature, the reward system (processes that control motivation, desire, and cravings), and blood flow—in fact, viewing art that one considers the most visually pleasing increases blood flow in a certain part of the brain by as much as 10%.

In a 2015 study led by researchers at the University of Houston and published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, scientists observed how exactly our brains react to art by monitoring subjects’ brain waves as those subjects perceived artwork. They found that when a person views art, their brain’s delta-wave connectivity shows a major increase, which is linked to decision making and attention. There is an even higher increase in gamma-brain-wave activity, which is linked to information processing and cognition.

The researchers also found an interdependency of emotional and visual processing that occurs when we look at art. It appears that when viewing art, a connection is formed among emotional and visual processing, decision making, and expression.

Research into the brain’s response to viewing art is in its infancy, however; and further investigation is needed to reach a clear understanding of these connections, but evidence is showing that looking at what you deem to be beautiful art makes you feel happier and more fulfilled, and improves your health.

My advice? Go take in some art of your choosing right now.

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

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