New technology shows museum visitors how art activates their brains

This technology reveals how our brains react differently to an impressionist masterpiece of an abstract painting.

The headphone wearer looks at Van Gogh. Photo: Hydar Dewachi, courtesy of The Art Foundation.

Our appreciation of good art has always been intangible and largely unknown. But now, everyday museum visitors can gain new insights into how their brains respond to what they see. The UK Arts Foundation has launched a project that visualizes brain wave activity in real time to measure our response to different works of art. The initiative was piloted at the Courtauld Gallery in London earlier this month, and in 2024. it will travel to selected UK museums.

Last week, I tested the technology, which uses thin, wireless headphones that clamp sensors to the forehead and tuck behind the ears, similar to wearing glasses. The brainwave data is transmitted in real time to a large screen in the center of the room, controlled by an expert who monitors your every mental movement. When I slipped on the headset, I was delighted to see immediate signs of brain activity, evidenced by the loops and wavy strips that began to spin across the screen. I made my way around the room, perhaps too aware of the need to think normally and respond to art as I would under normal circumstances.

I later discovered that while looking at the soothing still lifes of Patrick Heron and Matthew Smith, my stripes began to glow, revealing lighter golden threads, indicating that I had encountered something familiar. Then I got to a much more cloudy one Shell construction (1962) Leon Kossoff, large canvas, densely covered with thick, impasto paint, with a strong abstract effect. My stripes began to twist into a corkscrew shape, which apparently signifies deep thinking or problem solving. Unsurprisingly, I had noticeably fewer brain waves whenever I walked across the room.

Brain waves on screen with Van Gogh in the background. Photo: Hydar Dewachi, courtesy of The Art Foundation.

Of course, the figures I saw on the screen are a simplified 3D visualization designed to make the raw data understandable to a layman like me without much background in neuroscience. After the electroencephalogram (EEG) headset collects data, the system emits a specific frequency of brain wave activity called the beta range. “There are other frequencies that are more related to unconscious thinking, but beta waves are related to your conscious thought,” said Will MacNeil, creative director of The Mill, the design agency that created the visualization. His team decided that recognition and intensive reflection are one of the most important models for art appreciation. “We’re trying to create an impression of what’s going on in your brain that’s also fun to look at,” he added.

My results were influenced by being in a gallery filled with 20th century British art, including many abstract paintings. Brain waves recorded in participants who walked around an adjacent gallery containing masterpieces by famous artists such as Van Gogh, Manet and Cézanne showed more glowing threads of recognition than corkscrews of disturbed contemplation. “Whether you like it or not, when you approach an abstract piece of art, you tend to try to understand it,” MacNeil said. “Whereas, if you’ve seen the painting before, you’re going to have a completely different response and probably look at it less objectively.”

The Art Foundation commissioned the project in response to statistics that around 40% of Britons visit a museum or gallery less than once a year, with 1 in 6 saying that art has had no impact on them. The charity hopes that providing brainwave data will be a fun, interactive way to show how art affects people’s minds and emotions, and that it will help motivate new audiences.

A real neurologist Dr. Ahmad Beyh of Rutgers University was also on hand to explain that the lightweight, wireless EEG headsets used in galleries are a far cry from laboratory-based methods of scientific analysis. Nevertheless, their ability to capture data in real time makes them “a great way to bridge the worlds of science and art and see how art engages the brain.”

One of Beyh’s main research interests is how our brain perceives beauty. “Increased experiences of beauty, whether it’s art, music or other people, correlate with increased activity in an area just behind the middle of the forehead called the medial orbitofrontal cortex,” he said. “The same region is associated with experiences of pleasure, the experience of reward, and the pursuit of reward, as well as introspective thoughts or dreams.

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Godfrey Kemp

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