Perhaps you already suspected this. I mean, even cavemen liked to draw. After all, billions of dollars are spent on artworks, and millions of people visit museums every year (beating out visits to sporting events). But the details of the neurochemical processes that get triggered when a person looks at a painting have, until recently, been quite murky.
A meta-analysis by researchers at the University of Toronto yields new insights into our neurochemistry, and suggests that the human brain is indeed built for art appreciation. Published in the June issue of Brain and Cognition, the meta-analysis pooled data from 15 studies mapping how the human brain responds to paintings. In the studies, conducted between 2004 and 2012 in seven countries, 330 participants (ages 18 to 59) looked at paintings by famous and unknown artists–while in MRI scanners that mapped their brain activity. About two-thirds of the participants were asked to judge or comment on the paintings; the rest just passively viewed them.
In the MRI scans, the visual cortex lit up–the area of the brain that processes visual information, like shapes and colors. No surprises there. Also highlighted were the fusiform gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus, responsible for perceiving and recognizing objects and places that are triggered by faces and landscapes in the images. More interesting, though, is that the paintings also activated the posterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula, key areas for processing emotion and thoughts, and the putamen, which helps the body learn and regulate movement and also plays a role in learning.
“These results suggest that viewing paintings engages not only systems involved in visual representation and object recognition, but also structures underlying emotions and internalized cognitions,” the researchers write in the paper.
If you’re among the many people who have wept upon seeing Rothko’s color fields, or felt awe when visiting the Sistine Chapel, or had any emotional reaction to art at all, really, you know this to be true on a gut level. But now, neuroscience demystifies those experiences.
Studies like this can feel a bit like explaining a magic trick. What you thought was your soul swooning at Starry Night is actually just a bunch of neurons firing away? Well, that’s how it is. But the transcendence and mystery of art shouldn’t be diminished by knowing what drives our particular thrills. If anything, these findings should inspire new and more wonder.