Art Appreciation

Our brains appear to have an intrinsic response to "art for art's sake"

By Quinn Eastman

Painting versus photograph

Brain boost: The reward circuit of a person¿s brain responds more strongly when viewing a painting than a photograph.

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Brain responds to art

Your brain appreciates art—even if you wouldn’t hang it over your sofa.

The “reward circuit” of the brain is more engaged when people view a painting than when they view a photograph, found researchers at Emory’s School of Medicine.

The images viewed by study participants, who were not separated by education or culture, included paintings from unknown and well-known artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Klee, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent Van Gogh, paired with photographs representing similar subjects. Viewing the paintings resulted in more activity in the ventral striatum, part of the “reward circuit” of the brain that is involved in experiencing pleasure, decision making, and risk taking, says researcher Krish Sathian, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology, and medical director of the Center for Systems Imaging.

The reward circuit is also activated by experiences such as gambling and taking drugs, and is involved in reinforcing behaviors under conditions of uncertainty, such as making financial decisions.

Previous brain imaging studies that examined people’s responses to art focused on the brain regions responsible for aesthetic preferences. But this study found that the reward system responded whether or not the viewer liked the piece.

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