This is Your Brain on Art

You’ve most likely have had the experience of walking into an art gallery and seeing a painting, sculpture, or drawing that interested you. The work may have made you feel certain emotions or even physical sensations. Due to the many different reactions we can have to art it isn’t surprising these reactions can be visualized using brain imaging. But, what areas of the brain are activated when viewing art?

art image
A detail of Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Paradise

Around the year 2000 a new field of research called neuroaesthetics emerged. Generally the field focuses on how the brain responds to art. Several more recent studies have come out revealing the many different ways we can respond to art. In 2007 the art historian David Freedberg and the neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese teamed up to investigate how viewers respond to motion or gestures they observe in artworks. Participants’ brain activation was monitored using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, a method usually used to measure the connection between the brain and muscle to assess disorders involving muscle damage. Participants were asked to focus on specific parts of art works. For example, Adam’s bent wrist in Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Paradise. While viewing the painting participants’ brain areas used for moving their own wrist, like the primary motor cortex, were activated.

In another 2012 study neuroscientists at New York University found that brain areas involved in self-reflection were activated when viewing art. Participants of many different levels of art experience viewed 109 diverse images from an art museum catalog. They were asked to rate how much the images “moved them” on a scale of 1 to 4. The ratings were highly variable among participants; there was no clear consensus on which works were the most “moving”. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging the researchers observed that for artworks a participant considered moving their default mode network brain regions were activated. The default mode brain network is usually activated when thinking about personally relevant matters such as personality traits, daydreams, and our future. This suggest that if a viewer feels that they can relate to an artwork personally in some way, they will find it more emotionally moving.

Studies like the two described give great insight on how art affects us. This research also brings together the art world and neuroscience in a way any liberal arts student can appreciate.


Devitt, J. (2012, April 18). When art touches a nerve, brain lights up. Retrieved from

Freedberg, D., & Gallese, V. (2007). Motion, emotion and empathy in esthetic experience. Trends in Cognitive Science, 11, 197-203.

Tucker, A. (2012, November). How Does the Brain Process Art? Retrieved from

Vessel, E. A., Starr, G. G., & Rubin, N. (2012). The brain on art: Intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 1-17.


One thought on “This is Your Brain on Art

  1. It is very interesting that when viewing movements in artwork our primary motor cortex lights up. This makes me wonder if the same thing would happen with other parts of the brain. For example, if you looked at a picture of a gymnast balancing on a balancing beam, would your cerebellum light up? Or if you saw a picture of someone listening to music, would your temporal lobe light up? Then, does this extend to everyday life? I would assume that it would and that watching someone run would stimulate the primary motor cortex as well.
    -Michaela Garrett


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