Did you know that looking at paintings rather than photographs activates the brain’s “reward system?” A very small study (8 study participants) by Emory University School of Medicine concludes the brain responds more strongly when viewing a painting than when looking at a photograph.
Volunteers were asked to view paintings by famous and not-so-famous artists and photographs while researcher scanned the volunteers’ brain wave activity using a functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI. Interestingly, the fMRI revealed the ventral striatum of the brain is more strongly activated when viewing a painting rather than a photograph of a similar subject. Btw, the work of famous artists selected for the study included Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and others.
According to Krish Sathian MD, a neurologist at Emory, the ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex (parts of the brain’s reward system) are the areas in the brain that reacts strongly when viewing paintings. These same areas are also strongly stimulated during high reward behaviors such as drug addiction and gambling.
Results from the above study is different from other art appreciation studies that used brain scans to examine how the brain responds when veiwing art considered attractive or ugly. Participants were asked to give a rating based how well she/he liked it. These studies have shown that the amygdala, involved in emotional reactions, as well as different regions in the orbitofrontal cortex are involved in aesthetic preference. See previous post on this study.
I don’t know how much this matters or even if it’s important, but different areas of the brain are stimulated based on whether one is looking at art for personal preference (aesthetics) and when looking at paintings versus photographs. In other words, the brain regions activated by paintings (as opposed to photographs) were independent from those brain regions that became active during aesthetic preference.
Interestingly, the results reveal that viewing paintings not only stimulated the ventral striatum, but it also activated the hypothalamus (associated with appetite regulation and other critical functions) and the orbitofrontal cortex (associated with risk-taking, impulse control and detection of social rules). Assuming these results are correct and can be replicated, a few thoughts arise with regard to incorporating the arts in healthcare…
- If people/patients are engaged in art-making, would the ventral striatum react even more strongly than simply looking at paintings?
- If viewing art stimulates the hypothalamus responsible for appetite (one of many functions), one could assume artwork in healthcare facilities may help patients with poor appetites.
- And lastly, incorporating the arts in healthcare settings will bring about all those associated benefits I wrote about in a previous post, which you can read here.
Source: PsychCentral “Brain feels rewarded when looking at art.”
Note: The study was inspired by the work of marketing experts Henrik Hagtve and Vanessa Patrick. The original purpose was to explore the effects of using a painting on a product’s advertising/packaging makes that product more appealing.