Mental Mettle and Musings: the power of art

by Arhana Aatresh (’23) | April 8, 2022

Art by Marisea Fisher (’24)

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked dialogue about the importance of art during difficult times. Isolation, lockdown, and quarantine periods have inspired people to turn to a range of artists for comfort, including musicians, visual artists, and other content creators. I certainly found solace in art by reading new books and experimenting with different musical endeavors. 

However, there is more to the creation and consumption of art than mere amusement. This simplification often leads people to discount it as unnecessary, an assumption contradicted by a new study from the Breda University of Applied Sciences, Tilburg University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (MPIEA). This novel research explains what happens in our brain when we experience “aesthetically appealing” art.

Using electroencephalography (EEG), an imaging technique that records the electric potential of neurons in the brain via electrodes on the scalp, researchers produced electrograms of brain activity while participants viewed different works of art and rated how much the art moved them. When participants viewed art they deemed unappealing or unaesthetic, the EEG recorded more intense gamma waves in the centroparietal region of the brain, which handles sensory input, compared to when they viewed art deemed appealing or aesthetic. Interestingly, there was a time delay between when the participant saw the piece and when the waves were recorded, indicating conscious perception of the art, rather than an automatic, subconscious response.

For art that was extremely appealing or unappealing, the EEG recorded alpha waves, implying that participants paid more attention to art that was especially aesthetically pleasing or unpleasing. This finding further supports that participants were actively forming conscious thoughts about the art. 

Edward A. Vessel, study co-author and MPIEA research associate, stated, “We try out different interpretations and meanings. This process takes time to develop and can continue for many seconds as a viewer savors the feeling of engaging with art.” The research proves that the art-viewing experience is highly personal; we take time to form opinions that are meaningful to us. Because observing art can stimulate new neural pathways, art heightens our attention and engages our brains.

Creating art has also been linked with reduced cortisol levels, regardless of the artist’s skill level. Christopher Tyler, director of the Smith-Kettlewell Brain Imaging Center in San Francisco, explained, “Art accesses some of the most advanced processes of human intuitive analysis and expressivity, and a key form of aesthetic appreciation is through embodied cognition.” Mirror neurons are responsible for this process, which helps activate a relaxed state, focused attention, and pleasure, similar to when people see their loved ones. 

Exam season is rapidly approaching, and while people may be inclined to cease artistic activities not related to academics, I urge you to rethink this strategy. Engage with something creative in stressful times because it is difficult to function when not in the correct headspace; art is another method through which you can form opinions, evaluate meaning, and be perceptive without taxing your brain. These activities can range from actively designing an art piece to consuming content online to simply letting your thoughts wander when looking at something intriguing. 

As musician Jon Batiste proclaimed in his Album of the Year acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards, “The creative arts are subjective and they reach people at a point in their lives when they need it most. It’s like a song or an album is made, and it’s almost like it has a radar to find the person when they need it the most.” Never forget to maintain balance in your life by appreciating the art around you!

Categories: Column, Science

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