The relationship between art and brain: a positive self-treatment

The study of the relationship between brain sciences and the arts was first coined “neuroaesthetics” in the late 1990s by Semir Zeki, a neuroscientist and professor at University College London. Much of the initial research focused on empirical aesthetics, examining the neural bases underlying how we perceive and judge works of art and aesthetic experiences.

Antonio Damasio, a neurologist studying the neural systems underlying emotion, decision-making, memory, language, and consciousness at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, states, “Joy or sorrow can emerge only after the brain registers physical changes in the body.” He continues, in an interview with Scientific American Mind, “The brain constantly receives signals from the body, registering what is going on inside of us. It then processes the signals in neural maps, which it then compiles in the so-called somatosensory centers. Feelings occur when the maps are read and it becomes apparent that emotional changes have been recorded.”

Art psychotherapist Sofie Dobbelaere agrees that going to a gallery to view art can be a powerful healing experience. “When we look at art, we connect with our humanity, and therefore are pulled into dialogue with something outside of ourselves, and this can help us feel connected and like we are part of something important.”

The fast-paced culture of instant gratification often leads us to consume works of art in the same time frame as reading an email. However, art sometimes demands that we spend more time observing a painting or installation. Experts suggest “slow looking,” savoring a work of art, spending time for several minutes or even visiting a museum just to contemplate a single piece. Galleries are full of amazing works, but observing just one on a deeper level can be incredibly meaningful.

Susan Magsamen highlights that 95% of adults in the UK agree that visiting museums and galleries is beneficial, but 40% visit them less than once a year. The winter months are the perfect time to visit exhibitions and take care of oneself with this form of psychological self-treatment.

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