Brainwaves Reveal the Active Nature of Engagement with Art
Have you ever wondered what the millions of neurons in your brain do when you think about a favorite piece of art? In a new article just published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, a team of researchers from Breda University of Applied Sciences and Tilburg University in the Netherlands, as well as the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (MPIEA) in Frankfurt, Germany, present new work measuring the brain waves generated by aesthetically appealing experiences. Their findings suggest that aesthetic experience goes hand in hand with actively constructing meaning from a work of art and being in a state of heightened attention.
Neurons in the human brain are constantly communicating. This communication is based on very rapid oscillations. In order to study these processes when receiving art, the international research team conducted a study using electroencephalography (EEG): participants viewed different images of works of art and rated how point each work moved them aesthetically while their brain waves were measured via an EEG cap.
When participants looked at works of art that they found attractive, the electroencephalogram revealed a greater amount of very fast gamma waves on a certain part of the brain, compared to works of art that were not. not attractive. Interestingly, these gamma waves didn’t appear right away, but only after about a second. This delay suggests that the participants were not simply reacting to the visual properties of an artwork, but that these brain waves reflected a process of meaning formation.
Edward A. Vessel, associate researcher at the MPIEA and co-author of the study, explains: “We don’t just passively perceive art, but we engage in a process of discovery that can last several seconds. We try different interpretations and meanings. . This process takes time to develop and can continue for several seconds as the viewer savors the sensation of engaging with the art.”
In addition to gamma waves, scientists have also observed so-called alpha waves. These were more pronounced for artworks with high and low ratings, compared to images that received medium ratings. These waves likely reflect the fact that study participants pay more attention to art that they particularly like or dislike than to works for which they feel neutral.
The authors hope this new research can contribute to our understanding of how people appreciate art, but they also see it as part of a larger issue. Using the viewing of art as an example of a visual experience whose interpretation is both highly individual and linked to meaning, their work aims to unravel the mysteries of why and how we delight in making sense of our environment.