Monday, May 9, 2011
Brain scans reveal the power of art
View on the Stour near Dedham 1822' by John Constable
Photo: Bloomburg News
By Robert Mendick, Chief reporter 8:00AM BST 08 May 2011
Human guinea pigs underwent brain scans while being shown a series of 30 paintings by some of the world's greatest artists.
The artworks they considered most beautiful increased blood flow in a certain part of the brain by as much as 10 per cent – the equivalent to gazing at a loved one.
Paintings by John Constable, Ingres, the French neoclassical painter, and Guido Reni, the 17th century Italian artist, produced the most powerful 'pleasure' response in those taking part in the experiment.
Works by Hieronymus Bosch, Honore Damier and the Flemish artist Massys – the 'ugliest' art used in the experiment – led to the smallest increases in blood flow. Other paintings shown were by artists such as Monet, Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci and Cezanne.
Professor Semir Zeki, chair in neuroaesthetics at University College London, who conducted the experiment, said: "We wanted to see what happens in the brain when you look at beautiful paintings.
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"What we found is when you look at art – whether it is a landscape, a still life, an abstract or a portrait – there is strong activity in that part of the brain related to pleasure.
"We put people in a scanner and showed them a series of paintings every ten seconds. We then measured the change in blood flow in one part of the brain.
"The reaction was immediate. What we found was the increase in blood flow was in proportion to how much the painting was liked.
"The blood flow increased for a beautiful painting just as it increases when you look at somebody you love. It tells us art induces a feel good sensation direct to the brain."
The test was carried out on dozens of people, who were picked at random but who had little prior knowledge of art and therefore would not be unduly influenced by current tastes and the fashionability of the artist.
The magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan measured blood flow in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, part of the brain associated with pleasure and desire.
The study, which is currently being peer reviewed, is likely to be published in an academic journal later this year.
Professor Zeki added: "What we are doing is giving scientific truth to what has been known for a long time – that beautiful paintings makes us feel much better.
"But what we didn't realise until we did these studies is just how powerful the effect on the brain is."
The study is being seized upon as proof of the need for art to be made as widely available to the general public as possible.
There is currently concern in the arts world that widespread budget cuts could affect accessibility while also slashing acquisition budgets.
"I have always believed art matters so it is exciting to see some scientific evidence to support the view life is enhanced by instantaneous contact with works of art," said Dr Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, the national fund-raising charity which has spent £24 million over the last five years helping to buy art for galleries and museums.
Last month, the organisation launched a National Art Pass giving free entry to more than 200 museums and galleries and 50 per cent off entry to major exhibitions.
The Art Fund has pledged to increase its funding by 50 per cent to £7 million a year by 2014 to make up for widespread budget cuts in the arts world.
The charity has been praised by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt for showing that "philanthropy can be about small as well as large donations".
This article originally published by The Telegraph, on Tuesday, May 10, 2011