Brain Feels Rewarded While Looking at Art

I found this really cool article yesterday about a study that was conducted by the Emory University on how our brains react to viewing art and photography of both known and unknown artists.

Brain Feels Rewarded While Looking at Art
By Traci Pedersen

Viewing the works of Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and other artists more strongly activates the brain’s “reward system” than simply looking at photographs of similar subjects, according to a new study by researchers at Emory University School of Medicine.

The Emory study included four male volunteers and four females whose average age was 23.  The participants were asked to view paintings from both unknown and famous artists (Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and others), as well as photographs that depicted similar subjects.  Imaging technology revealed that when an individual viewed a painting, rather than a simple photograph, the ventral striatum (part of the reward system) was more strongly activated.

The ventral striatum is a set of regions in the brain involved in drug addiction and gambling, says senior author Krish Sathian, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine and psychology.  The Orbitofrontal Cortex is another brain area involved in the reward circuit.

Sathian noted that this area of the brain is not only activated by strong reward-seeking behaviors like gambling or drug-taking, but also plays a part in making decisions under uncertain conditions, such as financial decision-making.

Previous art appreciation studies that utilized brain scans typically sought to examine how the brain responds when art is considered attractive or ugly. Usually a study participant would be asked to look at an image and then give it a rating based on how well he or she 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.

“We took an independent approach,” Sathian said. “This paper hasn’t solved the problem of what art is. Rather, we can show that art does not activate just one process in the brain. There are a whole host of circuits involved.”

During the current study, participants were not asked if they enjoyed what they saw, or even if they considered it art, in order to avoid any biasing as a result of the question asked. Instead, as participants viewed the images, researchers scanned the volunteers’ brain activity (using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI) as they viewed paintings versus photographs.

Interestingly, the brain regions activated by art images (as opposed to photographs) were independent from those brain regions that became active during aesthetic preference.

Specifically, the results reveal that not only did art viewing stimulate the ventral striatum, but it also activated the hypothalamus (associated with appetite regulation) and the Orbitofrontal Cortex (associated with risk-taking, impulse control and detection of social rules).

The study was inspired by the work of marketing experts Henrik Hagtvedt of Boston College and Vanessa Patrick of University of Houston; both of whom were at the University of Georgia during the study. Hagtvedt and Patrick had explored the effects of “art infusion,” in marketing—in other words, how incorporating a painting on a product’s advertising or packaging could make it more appealing.

“The art infusion effect is tied to the notion that art represents a distinct, universal and recognizable category of human behavior,” said Hagtvedt, who also chose the images used in the study.

“This category is not characterized by what is depicted, but by how it is depicted. Therefore, even art and non-art images with similar content should evoke different responses from viewers. The current study provides evidence that this is indeed the case. ”

If the participants had all been art historians, or had come from a developing country and had not visited museums or been exposed to Western art, they might well have shown a different pattern of brain activation when viewing the images, said first author Simon Lacey, Ph.D., and research associate.

“The thinking is that the reward circuit evolved to shape our brains’ decision making, to provide reinforcement when decisions turn out to be beneficial,” Sathian says.

“We find that the brain’s responses to art may have a connection to the reward circuit and perceptions of luxury or social status, independent of whether an individual rates the image in question highly.”

The study was supported by the State of Georgia, the National Institutes of Health and the Veterans Administration.  The results are published online in the journal NeuroImage.

Source:  Emory University and Psych Central

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