The Noah Project

Rebuilding a sustainable world.

Art Excites The Whole Brain


For those of us whose appreciation for art is simply a personal asthetic, a kind of “aha this speaks to me,” Arthur Shimamura’s article in the Oxford University Press may shed some light on how our brains experience it:

…over the past two decades, neuroimaging research has advanced our understanding of the biological bases of many mental functions to the point that it has completely revolutionized psychological science. What has become clear is that for a thorough analysis of any complex mental process, including our appreciation of art, we must characterize how neural processes interact in addition to where in the brain they occur. With respect to art, I suggest that when our sensory, conceptual, and emotional parts of our brain are all coordinated and extremely aroused—say 11 on a scale of 10—we experience that “wow” feeling, as one might have while standing in front of Michelangelo’s David or Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone.
Vincent van Gogh: Starry Night Over the Rhone ...

Vincent van Gogh: Starry Night Over the Rhone Arles, September 1888 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And, although he applauds the budding intellectual fields such as “neuroaesthetics,” “neuroarthistory,” and “neurocinematics” that have cropped up, in the end, what informs our choices, Shimamura believes, is more than just a mechanical brain function.

We never experience art with naïve eyes. Rather we bring with us a set of preconceived notions in the form of our cultural background, personal knowledge, and even knowledge about art itself. In large measure, what we like is based on what we know. When we accept the fact that our art experience depends on a confluence of sensations, knowledge, and feelings, it becomes clear that there is no “art center” in the brain. Instead, when we confront art, we essentially co-opt the multitude of brain regions we use in everyday interactions with the world. Thus, with respect to “neuroaesthetics,” the question “How do we experience art?” can be simply answered as: “It’s a whole-brain issue, stupid!”

Author: Daniela

I was born in Croatia, at that time Yugoslavia. My family moved to the US when I was very young, but I still treasure the memories of my grandfather teaching me how to protect myself against the "evil eye," my grandmother shopping early every morning, at the open air market, to buy the freshest vegetables for the day's meals, and the traditions that were the underpinnings of our society. Someone once noted that "For all of us that want to move forward, there are a very few that want to keep the old methods of production, traditions and crafts alive." I am a fellow traveler with those who value the old traditions and folk wisdom. I believe the knowledge they possess can contribute significantly to our efforts to build a more sustainable world; one that values the individual over the corporation, conservation over growth and happiness over wealth.

3 thoughts on “Art Excites The Whole Brain

  1. Thanks for the post Daniela – it’s so interesting how the interaction between the different parts of the brain can combine and fuse to give us that ‘wow’ feeling when we experience a great piece of art, be it music, painting or a great book – the brain is such a weird and wonderful thing!

    • I sometimes feel ambivalent about brain research. I don’t think I want everything explained in simple mechanistic terms. I’d like some mystery to remain.

      • I agree – I think there will always remain an air of mystery no matter how deep they go, which is a good thing. ‘ just found a great quote about this kind of thing (the joys of Google):
        “The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” Anaïs Nin

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