“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”
For all of our existence, the desire to create and appreciate figures of beauty has defined our identity as the human species. Art has become the poetry of action and emotion, pouring an outward flow of love into the physical. With each fiery explosion of passion and release-- and with each moment of stillness in between, there remains a remarkable quality of our nature that no other animal can compare. From pencil to paper, voice to melody, movement to dance, paint to brush, imagination to creation, we light up neural pathways in our brains and become chemically transformed in each moment of self-exploration.
During the creation of art, we are able to develop personal expression and focus on a self-related experience whether we create or view artwork. Christopher Tyler, director of the Smith-Kettlewell Brain Imaging Center states that “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, the ability to project oneself as an agent in the depicted scene.” Embodied cognition is essentially what creates the allure and pleasure in viewing artwork. Mirror neurons, cells that respond similarly when performing an action, are responsible for the sensations that overcome us when viewing or creating art. When we view another’s artwork, we can feel a sense of emotion and recognize ourself in its features. (Zambon)
The prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area responsible for emotion, imagination and reward circuitry, is actively engaged when performing art. There are two parts of the prefrontal lobe—the ventromedicml prefrontal lobe (VMPFL) and the dorsolateral prefrontal lobe (DLPFL) which engage during artistic expression. According to The Indian Academy of Neurology, it’s suggested that the development of creative cognition is first activated in the VMPFL and is then transferred to the DLPFL. Because of the wide connectivity between both, other necessary cortical areas (in both hemispheres) are activated to conclude the final creative output. As an artist conceptualizes a visual picture that he desires to create the VMPFL is stimulated. This trigger is influenced from the memory brain and emotion of the artist regarding the perceived concept of the visual image. The information is then transferred to the DLPFL which is processed then again transferred to the motor cortex for final execution. The memory and emotional brains are continuously engaged as the artwork is being formed. (Chakravarty)
The engagement of emotions, memory and decision making— all non-perceptual processes— is what differentiates aesthetic preference from other cognitive processes involving visual stimuli. This is what elicits feelings of appreciation or rejection, which is mediated by the VMPFL cortex and joins the DLPFL through decision making. Activity in primary and abstract reward stimuli proposes that creative preference represents the reward value of each stimulus. Therefore, the prefrontal lobe becomes a crucial component of art appreciation and production. (Chakravarty)
A recent study published by Dextrel University observes that creating art activates the brain’s reward pathway. The coordinators Girija Kaimal EdD, assistant professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, Jennifer Nasser PhD, and Hasan Ayaz PhD designed the study for 26 participants to complete 3 different art activities such as coloring a mandala, doodling in or around a circle, and free-drawing for a total of 3 minutes each, then completing a survey. Participants who considered themselves artists were noted and tracked to compare their results with the non-artists. Using fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) technology, researchers measured blood flow in the areas of the brain related to rewards as the participants completed the activities. Results showed that doodling seemed engaged the most brain activity in the artists while free-drawing showed to be about the same for artists and non-artists. Surprisingly, the coloring activity observed negative brain activity in artists, yet ultimately any form of art-making resulted in the significant activation of feelings of reward. (Dextrel University)
While the study contributed a significant amount of research to modern science, there could have been modifications to improve the results. Firstly, there should have been more time allotted to each activity. Three minutes is too short of a time to allow creativity to flow and also puts unnecessary pressure on participants. Observing the brain activity throughout the course of an hour, with twenty minutes allotted to each activity could provide more accurate results. Also including more people who identified themselves as artists could give more opportunity to examine differences in brain activity between artists and non-artists.
Art is our raw, imperfect humanness waiting to be experienced and understood. Art rejuvenates and revitalizes, washing away all that no longer belongs to us through each stroke of a brush, scratch of a pencil, chop of a knife, sway of a hip, tone of a note. With each movement of self expression and act of art appreciation, we shift our internal beliefs and challenge assumptions about ourselves. As the reward centers illuminate our minds, we evoke positive emotions and creative agency upon ourselves.
Chakravarty, Ambar. "The neural circuitry of visual artistic production and appreciation: A proposition." Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology. Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, Apr. 2012. Web. 19 July 2017.
Zaidel, Dahlia W. "Creativity, brain, and art: biological and neurological considerations." Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Frontiers Media S.A., 2 June 2014. Web. 14 July 2017.
Bergado, Gabe . "Mic | Breaking News, Opinion, Reviews, Analysis." Mic | Breaking News, Opinion, Reviews, Analysis. Mic Network Inc, 15 Dec. 2014. Web. 14 July 2017.
Drexel University. "Making art activates brain's reward pathway." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 June 2017.