Something in our brain responds when we look at a painting.
That experience refreshes and changes us. Afterwards we are more creative and open to learning. We are less mentally fatigued.
Our brains are primed for enjoying art.
For longer than we've had the written word, humans have created and stared at images drawn onto walls in the hopes of invoking something — story, awe, remembrance.
Forty thousand years ago, beasts may have been drawn in hopes they'd become more common, or perhaps those images were the work of ancient shamans, trying to account for some mysterious spirit vision.
We don't know exactly why we started doing it but we persist in making and looking at visual art to this day. And while we can only theorize about what inspired us to start making art, modern research helps us understand something about what's going on in our brain when we see it now.
A study published in the June issue of the journal Brain and Cognition looked at the research that neuroscientists have done while scanning the brains of people looking at paintings. In some cases subjects were asked to evaluate the work they looked at, in others they just looked.
Viewing paintings triggered responses in brain regions associated with visual understanding and object recognition, as might be expected, but viewing artwork also was connected to activity associated with emotions, inner thoughts, and learning.
Other research tells us more about how art can change the way we see the world.
In Business Insider's 21-day self-improvement program, one early assignment involves spending time in a museum — but the point of that isn't just to have a fun afternoon.
After visiting an art museum, students show stronger critical thinking skills and are more socially tolerant. Much of the research on this topic involves children or young adults but the benefits are consistent, and other research shows that (more general) arts programs may help older adults keep healthy and stave off cognitive decline, though more studies are needed in the area.
Visiting a museum can relieve mental fatigue and restore the ability to focus in the same way that the outdoors can, according to research from the University of Queensland in Australia — this research wasn't limited to art museums, which is why the assignment doesn't require an art museum specifically.
But in general, going to a museum is a novelty-seeking venture, which triggers your brain to be open to learning. Not only does this provide long lasting cognitive benefits, it's also connected to one of the Big 5 personality traits — openness to experience. This is the trait most associated with creative achievement.
Exposing ourselves to art, this thing that has been a part of human experience for thousands of years, has effects on us.
Writing for the National Endowment of the Arts, Brain Pickings founder Maria Popova described this phenomenon as "the power to transcend our own self-interest, our solipsistic zoom-lens on life, and relate to the world and each other with more integrity, more curiosity, more wholeheartedness."
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