More than just lookin’ pretty: Art exercises your brain all over

Semir Zeki is a professor of neuroesthetics at the University College London who’s been studying the affects of art on the brain since 1970. As it turns out, different types of art affect your brain in different ways depending on what’s being represented, turning museums into mental jungle-gyms.

Check out the nifty table I made to get the breakdown on which mental aerobics you’re doing when:

Type of art That might look like this Activates this part of your brain That’s usually associated with Exercising your brain here
Cezanne’s Still Life with Skull, 1900

Primary visual cortex & inferior temporal cortex Object recognition, long-term memory, & emotions
Photo found here.

Primary visual cortex in blue. Inferior temporal cortex follows the ventral stream down in purple

Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait, 1889

Fusiform gyrus in the temporal lobe Facial recognition, word & number recognition, and color processing
Photo found here.

Fusiform gyrus in pink

People in action
Cupid & Psyche by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. 1889

Mirror neurons in the prefrontal cortex Muscle memory that fires when you can relate to another’s physical action
Photo found here.

Prefrontal cortex

Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1943

Parts of the visual cortex and parietal lobe Visuospatial processing, and geometry/numbers
Photo found here.

Parietal lobe

Vladimir Kush’s Metamorphosis

The anterior cingulate cortex & dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe

Resolving conflicts or catching errors
Photo found here.

(A) Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (blue). (B) Anterior cingulate cortex (yellow).

You can read a section of Zeki’s research for yourself here. My table was inspired by this post on Gurney Journey – and you can read a brief interview Gurney did with Zeki here as well.

In the paper linked to above, Zeki wrote, “…the overall function of art is an extension of the function of the brain,” meaning that the creation of art and even just looking at it both work as mental exercises that are only possible because of how complicated our brains are in the first place.

There was a gallery in Baltimore in 2010 that tried to play with the different ways art could exercise your brain. They showed visitors 3-D printouts of slightly altered abstract sculptures by Jean Arp – some skinnier, some wider, to see which they were most attracted to, as a way of studying “aesthetic emotion.” In 2007 the same museum experimented with a show of Courbet’s landscapes by playing classical music in the background and subtly changing the shade of the lighting every 60 seconds. Visitors ended up staying four times longer in the exhibit because of these additions.

Pieces of art deemed “beautiful” by the viewer can also increase blood flow in the brain’s emotional center in the limbic system by as much as 10% – the same increase we experience when looking at someone we love. The increase in blood flow is directly proportional to how much the viewer likes the work, so my heart starts pumping at Van Gogh and almost stops beating at Cindy Sherman. Which works make your heart race?
Read about the full results of this study done by Zeki last year in this Telegraph article.

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