Man contemplating paintings in gallery
November 15, 2015

This is your brain on art: Researchers record brain waves in art galleries

For the first time ever, scientists have captured a real-world demonstration of what happens inside your head when you look at art—which also helps to prove that brain data doesn’t need to be collected inside a lab to be usable.

"You can do testing in the lab, but it's very artificial," explained co-author Lillie Cranz Cullen--Distinguished Professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, in a statement. "We were looking at how to measure brain activity in action and in context."

The brain's reaction to art

The researchers followed 431 individuals as they examined an exhibition of art by Dario Robleto at the Menil Collection in Houston. As reported in their paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, art deemed aesthetically pleasing led to increased functional connectivity in localized brain networks as compared to the baseline readings. Meanwhile, other differences were recognized between the sexes and between the oldest and youngest participants.

"The direction of signal flow showed early recruitment of broad posterior [visual] areas followed by focal anterior activation," wrote the authors. "Significant differences in the strength of connections were also observed across age and gender. This work provides evidence that EEG [electroencephalogram], deployed on freely behaving subjects, can detect selective signal flow in neural networks, identify significant differences between subject groups, and report with greater-than-chance accuracy the complexity of a subject's visual perception of aesthetically pleasing art."

These differences were measured using EEG headsets, which allowed subjects to be completely mobile while their brains were scanned. The exhibit, "The Boundary of Life Is Quietly Crossed," featured sculptures and recordings that represented the heart. The researchers deemed each piece to be either complex or moderate in meaning, and had participants face a blank wall for one minute to measure a baseline of brain activity before allowing them to enter.

Potential uses of these findings

In 20 people who wore a specific kind of EEG headset, a gel-based one, researchers were able to look at brain wave patterns to predict whether a participant was examining a blank wall, a complex piece of art, or a moderately complex piece with 55% accuracy—much better than the 33% accuracy that would result from random guessing. Much more data on this is to yet be crunched from the other kinds of headsets.

As to where this will lead, other researchers may now feel emboldened to study the brain in a non-laboratory setting, and it may lead to giving artists and museum curators the ability to understand how people will react and move through an exhibit. Further, it could have other applications related to daily life, according to Contreras-Vidal.

“We might find that there are people who are very attuned to visual art, or to music, or poetry, and there might be an underlying common neural network,” he said. “If we know that, we could optimize the delivery of art for therapy, for teaching.”

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