by Jon Spayde, Present Nation
March 15, 2015

How looking at art rewards the brain

An attentive stroll through an art museum is doing more than giving you insight into the vision of Cézanne or Picasso and upping your culture quotient, according to recent art-and-brain research. It’s activating parts of the brain involved in stress reduction, contemplation and reward-seeking.

Arts.Mic reports on a study from the University of Westminster in Britain that found that a lunchtime visit to an art museum lessened the stress levels of participants. They all reported feeling less stressed after 35 minutes exploring the artworks in any sequence they chose. Even more significantly, the researchers found that the levels of cortisol – dubbed the “stress hormone” – in the most stressed participants had decreased after the museum visit.

It’s possible, of course, that the stress-reduction effect had as much to do with simply taking a break from work as it did with looking at art. But other studies have looked more closely at how art itself connects with the brain.


PsychCentral reports on research at Emory University that found that looking at art activates the ventral striatum, a group of brain locations that make up an important part of the brain’s reward system, and are associated with drug addiction and gambling.

The researchers found that artistic representations of objects – by major artists like Monet and Van Gogh – had a stronger effect on the ventral striatum than photographs of similar objects, suggesting that the sense of being rewarded by art has more to do with how an object is portrayed – style, color, etc. – than what the object is recognized to be.


Oshin Vartanian of the University of Toronto Scarborough, an expert on the neuroscience of aesthetics and creativity, did an analysis of 15 studies in which the brains of people looking at art were scanned. His study also noted that reward systems “light up” when subjects look at art. He told U of T News that “when it comes to art appreciation the areas of the brain that are most reliably engaged have to do with the instinctive experience of emotion or some pleasure-reward control system.”

But the response also goes “deeper.” Vartanian’s study found that the brain’s default mode network – “the area associated with internally oriented thinking like daydreaming, thinking about the future or retrieving memories – is also activated.” Essentially, looking at art connects with our capacity for contemplation and thinking about our lives.

“So you have this parallel situation where you are deriving a very instinctive, pleasure and reward-oriented emotion and a more cognitive, contemplative response all at once,” he says. “It can make for a powerful experience.”

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By Kristin Tillotson, Star Tribune
May 5, 2015

Museums are literally mind-expanding, researchers say

Spending an hour or three at a museum is bound to increase your store of knowledge. But museum visits not only influence what we learn, but how we learn. They spark contemplation, encourage empathy, make us more curious and increase personal creativity, according to studies and audience research.

Just looking at art has value beyond the intrinsic, said Elisabeth Callihan, head of multigenerational learning for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. “People develop more self-confidence and think more creatively by interpreting works of art for themselves. And prolonged looking can lead to the kind of self-reflection that leads to transformational learning, the idea that through critical thought, you have a change in attitude or belief.”


By Mary Abbe, Star Tribune
April 15, 2016

How to enjoy a trip to the museum: Look with a 'child's mind,' and other tips

Slow down. Look more deeply. Listen to your gut. It's all part of a new "slow art" movement. Everybody knows how to watch a movie or listen to music. Just sit through the first, groove to the second.

When it comes to art, though, people sometimes seem clueless and uncomfortable. Glancing aimlessly, they fast walk through galleries or museums as if on a cultural marathon.

The Louvre museum in Paris found that visitors spent 15 seconds on average looking at the “Mona Lisa,” the world’s most famous painting. And much of that time was straining to snap a photo over a scrum of other visitors. Researchers at the Metropolitan Museum in New York clocked 17 seconds for a typical painting, while the more laid-back gawkers at the J. Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles lingered a whole 30 seconds.

Impatience has prompted a backlash of sorts. This month more than 150 institutions, from London’s National Gallery to the Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis, participated in Slow Art Day, a free annual event that encourages viewers to spend 10 minutes or more gazing at individual artworks.