Brains Behind Art

by Dorothy Yam

You enter a museum. People are dispersed throughout the museum, engaged in a piece that each of them finds appealing or bewildering. You also notice how key pieces get a majority of the spectators, where a large portion of the museum’s populace is crowding around for a glimpse. This environment is typical for a museum, it is likely you have experienced it at one point in your life. Ever wonder of the functions behind it? How do we experience art: What goes on in our minds to make something appealing? And more generally: What are some common appeals we have toward specific forms? Then, the artists themselves: What is the creativity and where does it come from? How are neurological conditions tied into the artistic mind, and how can art reform the world we know today?
Maybe it's time to break the barrier between science and art.

With such a broad topic such as art, one would generally define it as a form of self-expression and something completely free and beyond any scientific boundary. Artists use the arts to play around with the senses, to experiment, to portray what they see from their unique perspective, to do anything they want to--there is no definite purpose behind it. It exists because it has become a part of our human experience, and behind all of this is the brain. Brain makes art possible to us, in order for us to perceive it as art and to experience it. We apply our own experience to each piece to make it beautiful to us individually. Aesthetically or psychologically, the art of art is a phenomena within itself. The application of science to art does not taint its values or liberties, much rather it assigns meaning to trends and make it a viable, applicable topic to more subjects common to us. To understand the works behind art is to open a door to understanding our own brains.

“I have never made a painting as a work of art, it’s all research.” -Pablo Picasso
The union of neuroscience and art is actually a well-established set of studies and interest for those curious to delve into the deeper aesthetic value and what exactly happens “when we art.” Art as we know, has been with us for millenniums, and with our new perception of art as anything we experience has become more of a facet to our freedom to express as human beings, making it all the more interesting to study the functions behind it.

Neuroaesthetics is a recently-coined topic: it is the scope of study in which perception of the arts and then deeper functioning mechanics that guide what it means to perceive art are studied, in order to learn more about the fascinating brain itself. This new outlook gives more importance to the entire concept of art itself.

Do not try to define art, it would take the beauty of mystery and acceptance away from it. Much rather see the functions in our own brains at work in relation to it. Who knows what discoveries we will stumble upon? After all, science is no clear cut path either--it's about exploration and taking risks...
It's an art.

A Surface View of the Artistic Experience and its Science

“Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living. Under conditions of resistance and conflict, aspects and elements of the self and the world that are implicated so that conscious intent emerges” (1).
Our experiences create our states of mind and make us who we are - art also plays a role in giving us experience and shape who we are. In our mental storage of experiences and the self, we tend to give differing values to each memory depending on the magnitude of its experience. The overall effect is something that engages the brain and locks us into focus, and then enables us to rely back on what we saw. John Dewey, a renowned American philosopher and psychologist, gives new meaning to art in his novel Art as Experience by showing how experience makes our lives and also how art acts as an experience in our lives. He describes the workings behind an experience and what makes and breaks the line for aesthetic appeal.
“The enemies of the aesthetic are neither practical nor the intellectual. They are the humdrum; slackness of loose ends; submission to convention in practice and intellectual procedure. Rigid abstinence, coerced submission, tightness on one side and dissipation from the unity of an experience” (1).
To experience art, it is portrayed as beyond what it actually is, to represent the essence and to accent its features, to feel the piece. For example, caricatures well known to us today subtract the usual and accent whatever is beyond average (3). This way, morphing an image makes it look even more like what an image is--it rigs into our feelings, to portray the essence, more than just what one sees. The beauty of art can be seen as using more than just sight--more of using one’s vision, almost like the concept of being “alive but not living.” The concept of relating two images to a common characteristic is deemed as the peak shift effect. The peak shift is a phenomena where something that resembles another image, in something such as color (red and orange relate more than red and blue), and generates a similar reaction between the red and orange, by association of the two (3). This is one of the “Eight laws of artistic experience” by VS Ramachandran, a well-known neuroscientist known especially for his studies in motor neurons and neuroaesthetics. The eight principles are epitomized in the video here:
In summation, there are eight laws which shape our experience as the perceivers of art to make certain art appealing--generating a common appeal to the human eye in which we share. These eight laws are:
1) Peak shift: To capture the essence
2) Isolation: Focus attention to certain characteristic aspects of a piece
3) Grouping: Extracting correlations between key aspects of a piece
4) Contrast: Differ things a bit--amassing different forces harmoniously
5) Symmetry: Humanistic natural appeal toward balance
6) Generic viewpoint: Certain viewpoints we tend to like and associate with the portrayed object more
7) Perceptual problem solving: The pleasurable struggle to “figure out” an image rather than it being extremely obvious - be more engaged with the art
8) Art as a metaphor: Relating completely different concepts or things by their similar characteristics (3)
With these organized laws of experience, trends in art become simplified, yet amplified.

In addition to making art an experience for people, another important facet to perceiving art is, not surprisingly, our own past experiences. “Without the act of reaction the object is not perceived as a work of art” (1). How much we relate to certain art also determines how much we like it, because having deeper understanding tends to give some things more importance and sentimental value to us. “For all of us, what makes something art is dependent on our beliefs about how it came into being, not merely its current nature, not merely what it looks like” (2). To find defining features of ourselves elsewhere puts special personal meaning into something foreign form our own minds and personas, as if a part of us exists beyond our conventional existence.
VS Ramachandran’s studies of motor neurons brought him to the conclusion that our brains empathize with other brains, because the brain can sense pain that others feel, yet do not actually feel the physical pain itself. Although, with the absence of a physical piece of us, we actually “feel” the pain. This further brought him to the conclusion that perhaps we as people are interconnected as a sets of neurons which interact and engage in each other’s experiences. For more concise explanation for this theory, redirect to the following video:

This brings up a key question: Does art also have the potential to bring about feeling in a similar way?
Can art be a medium for this transport of experience? We can be affected by art: artists portray a scene of gruesome pain or frivolous and bright happiness, and we can feel it. At the very least, we can see a piece which reminds us of our pasts and evoke nostalgia, without the artists themselves even being aware of it. We feel similar emotions and appeals for certain aspects of aesthetics, as seen by the eight laws of artistic experience. So, is art a medium for neurons to transport through? It is an interesting thought and reminder of the importance of art in our human experience. We are left to say: Art has all the potential, we can open ourselves to art, letting it filter through us, become a part of us, bringing us to life and lifting us or making us think. Well, at least it has the potential to.

Correlations Between Neurological Conditions and Art: Applying Science to the Artist's Mind

Another interesting topic to look into concerning the conjunction between the brain and art is the relation between neurological disease and artistic vision. One can not only analyze the effect of disease on art, but also let the art teach us something about disease. Art can give us insight, and let us relate to the mentally ill in new ways, in a humane and empathetic manner.

Neurological conditions can be malignant and morose. The slow decay of brain cells, the degenerating neurons, the imbalances - these are all saddening processes of our ephemeral existence. From these painful processes of losing all the beautiful potential the brain has, we still have the ability to create consciously. Through the experience of making art, we can also observe the phenomena that may occur, linking art to science and science to art. Studies have already begun to try and draw connections between neurological conditions and artistic production. Many artists we know, such as Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe, suffered from brain illness such as depression, yet are renowned to be some of the most contributing artists in history. Even out of saddening diseases, a blossom emerges out of the void silence, giving hope to people who still suffer today. Art can be used as therapy for those who suffer from brain illness, to act as soothing outlets of internal strife or just a calming way to experience life as it comes. Even for the typical disquietude of individuals worldwide, art can be the opportunity to create and rationalize--to evaluate oneself. It's a form of communication not only with the outside world, but with ourselves. This is a key concept which connects both art and science: both are ways to walk through the darkness and begin to experience life, understand, and express.

As aforementioned, several brain diseases have been analyzed in the context of art. Two of the main illnesses are depression and Alzheimer's Disease/dementia.

Studies have shown that artists have higher concentration of depression amongst them as opposed to general populations. The general populace has about 5% depression rate, while artists and writers from various studies had about 15-50% suffering from depression (4).
“Creativity is a sudden shift in meaning, context and story...You know, when the subatomic particle moves from here to there without going through the space in between, that's true creativity.” -Deepak Chopra, MD
What makes artists so interesting is their level of creativity--the power to think and create without previous precedent and be unpredictable to the point at which the brain becomes confused and astounded. Of course, what is conventional to some can be outlandish to others, but overall, the innovative ideas that stem from the artistic mind are nothing to be looked over.
Creativity can be seen as an observable product from certain parts of the brain. one may be familiar with the left- and right-brainer divisions amongst people. Those who are “left-brainers” tend to be more problem-solving, mathematical, and analytical, while the right-brainers are innovative, yearning, and creative (6).
Back to the time of Aristotle, depressiveness and artistic ability/creativity have been linked and observed as interactive (5). Artists suffer mentally and internally, and from this upheaval, blossoms the artistic genius which we see. The volatility of these artists is also seen in death rate statistics: they are eighteen times more likely to commit suicide than the average person (4). Four theories behind this phenomena include: artists may use art to cope with their mental problems, depression acts as subject matter for some works, experiencing the highs and lows of emotion truly express the human condition, and lastly - recovery from depression inspires creative work (5).
Artists and depressives share similar traits which include sensitivity and rapid fluctuations in mood and behavior (4). These burst of intense feeling, then compared to droning sadness and blue hollowness, leave much angst and passion into each different emotion. The product of these dramatic emotions can be traced back to the accented emotional impact they put in to their art which engages people into it--art with intense feeling: above average, and considerably different.
Famous artists who suffered from depression: Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’Keefe, Pablo Picasso, Francisco Goya, Edvard Munch (9).
Although it is difficult to compare creative art from those who are depressed as opposed to not depressed, some may observe how focused subject matter or feeling can be related back to thoughts of depression, as seen in this work, "Man in Sorrow."

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 10.13.01 AM.png
Vincent van Gogh's "Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)" has a subject matter which can give us insight not only on how Gogh felt. Sitting at his easel each day, he painted a man sulking in his own existence. From this we can make inductions, which lead us into the life of van Gogh by analyzing his choices in art. It can then make us think not only of his experience, but of the artistic experience as a whole. Art can act as a door to thoughts and unlock ideas of our lives that we maybe would not have acknowledged before.

Alzheimer’s Disease
With the slow decay of brain cells, artistic ability yields, and art throughout the process truly shows the digression from mechanical and mental skill at work. The famous painter Willem de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and began showing symptoms in the 1980s, and his art portrays his steady decline in brain capability. Despite this decline in his technique and capability, his work was more prolific, and he had been producing more works than ever (7). His art clearly portrays his submission to the disease, yet show some of his most sensitive and finest artistic accomplishments his career has seen (10). Kooning’s paintings went from their Abstract Expressionist genius to more spare and allusive, as the disease progressed (7). Two other painters, William Utermohlen and Carolus Horn, also had Alzheimer’s Disease and showed the effects of the disease in their work. Common to all three of these artists was the urge to create despite the circumstances and to keep creating and keep showing. By studying their work, new discoveries can arise concerning the horrible disease.

Compared to de Kooning's work from 1948:
de Kooning's work from his later years show more allusive portrayal of his feelings:
Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 10.51.16 AM.png
For people with Alzheimer’s Disease, art can act as a relief from the declining brain response and bring about a chance for people with Alzheimer’s to show their capabilities and struggle. Art helps them express essential features of themselves (8). Amid losing one's own personality and memory, one can still enjoy either the upbeat in-the-moment sound of gypsy jazz music or the colorful two point perspective pieces of Kirchner. People with Alzheimer’s Disease not only are still able to experience art, but they can also still portray their memories in the form of art (8) and continue to express what makes them special and important. Art can be used as therapy to digress from the sadness of reality and bring about the positive aspects of still living, beyond just being alive and being able to engage yourself in your world. When all goes wrong, you still have art--as a sign of hope.

To see direct works from people with neurological sickness, or just experimenting with art and neuroscience intertwined, see the following link:

Creativity is something we as humans appreciate when we see it. If you're huddled around a painting with strange juxtaposed forms of color groups you never thought would look so pleasing together, or around a piece of art which embodies famous allegories in the simplest of forms, you might think "I never would have thought of that." When one hears about new scientific discoveries, or inventions of a new technology, we go through a similar mental process. Both introduce new modes of thought constantly throughout their existence--maybe all we need to do is be engaged by our world, and pay attention until we come across new "knowledge" or new perspectives--to experience learning, and to experience art. It's in our reality, captured within our minds. The ability to use it is precious.

Art is everything and everything is art. It's a bold statement, but this is one of the few things I can say in confidence, of all that we perceive as existence ("Of all lies, art if the least untrue." -Flaubert), and that's because of potential. Our brains have the potential turn anything into "art," as long as we are open to it. As we walk forth, through the darkness, into unknown or untrodden territory, we begin to elucidate what's around us by exploration and thought. While science sheds light upon our reality, art gives us new perspectives, to see reality in multiple ways,
To be enlightened.
It is our brains that perceive the art, and even the brain in its complexity is art in its own sense. There's far more to appreciate and be happy about when thinking with this view.

Be engaged by your surroundings, for what is art and what is science can be seen as mutually inclusive.


(1) Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch &, 1934. Print.

(2) Broom, Paul. "Why Do We Like What We Like?" NPR. 23 July 2010. Why Do We Like What We Like?: NPR. 23 July 2010. Web. 29 May 2013. <>.

(3) Ramachandran, VS, and William Herstein. "The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience." Web. 30 May 2013. <>.

(4) Stone, Deborah. "Why Are Creative People More Prone to Depression?" ArtsHub Australia. N.p., 24 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 June 2013. <>.

(5) Carson, Shelley. "Depression, Creativity, and a New Pair of Shoes." Psychology Today. N.p., 30 June 2008. Web. 5 June 2013. <>.

(6) Eby, Douglas. "Left Brain, Right Brain - Creativity And Innovation: The Creative Mind."Psych N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2013. <>.

(7) Carroll, Jerry. "APEX OR DECLINE? / The Great Painter Willem De Kooning Has Alzheimer's Disease. As a Major New Show Opens at SFMOMA, Debate Continues over the Quality of His Late Work." SFGate. N.p., 1 Oct. 1995. Web. 05 June 2013. <>.

(8) Rosenzweig, Andrew. "Art Therapy and Alzheimer's Disease." Alzheimer's / Dementia. N.p., 17 Dec. 2011. Web. 05 June 2013. <>.

(9) "Famous Artists Who Suffered from Mental Illness (Psychology Meets Art 1)."Psychundergrad. N.p., 18 Apr. 2012. Web. 05 June 2013. <>.

(10) Marcus, EL, Y. Kaufman, and A. Cohen-Shalev. "Result Filters." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2009. Web. 05 June 2013. <>.