What Makes us Love Art?

What makes us love art?
By Eliza Rogan

I know why I love art.  As a child, the idea that art, by its nature, asks you to break the rules, appealed enormously to me.  It tapped into my inner rebellion and the love of asking “why” about everything.  We are raised in a world of school, adults, rules, and constantly being told that there is a right answer and a wrong answer.  It is a black and white world.   Art is a place where I can live in the grey.  And in color.

With art, you are never “wrong,” you are only “in process.”  Happy accidents and dropping your paintbrush can open the door to part of a creative path that you did not yet realize you were on.

And as I get older, I acknowledge that the grey areas of life are the only ones that make any sense to me.  There are no rights and wrongs; there are only emotional truths that live inside of each moment.  And art speaks to these uneasy answers.  It touches on the complicated nature of being human.

It turns out that the love of art is a human love.  We love art like we love each other.

According to a recent study at the University College of London, the reaction you have when you look at a piece of art that you are captivated by, is very similar to what happens to your brain when you look at someone you love. The brain is flooded with increased blood flow to medial orbitofrontal cortex: the part of the brain that is associated with pleasure and desire.*

Professor Semir Zeki, who sat at the helm of this study, says, “What we are doing is giving scientific truth to what has been known for a long time – that beautiful paintings make us feel much better.”

The art that drew this response was as varied as picking a mate.  It was different for each person.  And each person had their own reaction regardless of their exposure, education, or understanding of art.

Neuroscientist Dr. Edward Vessel conducted a study at New York University’s Center for Brain Imaging.  He found when participants were asked to rate an art piece from 1 – 4, the one they liked the best was the one that also created a strong response in the regions of the brain responsible for higher order cognitive processing, emotion, and memory.**

The really interesting part of both of these studies is that the viewer had their own reaction to the work that was a result of a brain change that occurs when observing an amazing piece of art.  But each reaction was caused by a different art piece for each viewer.

Art is designed to break the rules, and for that constant rebellion, I love art.  But science is now telling us that more than that, art stimulates our brains and our hearts in a way that little else in life can.

Except for maybe falling in love.

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* “Brainscans Reveal the Power of Art,” The Telegraph, May 8, 2011
* * Kathy Murphy, This Is Your Brain On Art, Measuring the Mind: New Research About The Brain, May 14, 2009

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