New technology shows museum visitors how art activates their brains

The technology reveals how our brains react differently to an impressionistic masterpiece of an abstract painting.

Headset wearer looks at Van Gogh. Photo: Hydar Dewachi, courtesy of Art Fund.

Our appreciation of good art has always had an intangible and essentially unknowable quality. But now, everyday museum-goers may gain new insight into how their brains react to what they see. The UK’s Art Fund has launched a project that visualizes brain wave activity in real time to measure our reactions to different works of art. The initiative was piloted at the Courtauld Gallery in London earlier this month and will tour to selected UK museums in 2024.

Last week I tested the technology, which uses a slim, wireless headset that presses sensors against the forehead and sticks behind the ears, a bit like wearing glasses. The brain wave data is transmitted in real time to a large screen in the center of the room, which is operated by an expert who is busy watching the movements of your mind. When I put the headset on, I was pleased to see immediate signs of brain activity, demonstrated by the looping and undulating bands that began to swirl across the screen. I paced the room, perhaps all too aware of the need to think normal thoughts and respond to the art as I would under normal circumstances.

I later learned that as I took in some soothing still lifes by Patrick Heron and Matthew Smith, my ribbons began to glow, showing brighter gold threads indicating that I had stumbled upon something that felt familiar. Then I approached the considerably more obscure one Shell construction site (1962) by Leon Kossoff, a large canvas densely covered in thick impasto paint that appears strongly abstract. My ribbons began to spin into a corkscrew shape, apparently signifying deep thought or problem solving. Not surprisingly, I showed noticeably fewer of both brainwave patterns while simply traversing the room.

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

Of course, the shapes I saw on the screen are a simplified 3D visualization meant to make the raw data comprehensible to a laywoman like me without much expertise in neuroscience. After the electroencephalogram (EEG) headset collects the data, the system isolates a specific frequency of brain wave activity known as the beta range. “There are other frequencies that have more to do with unconscious thinking, but beta waves are about your conscious thought,” said Will MacNeil, creative director of The Mill design agency, which produced the visualization. His team determined that recognition and intense reflection were among the most relevant thought patterns for art appreciation. “We’re trying to create an impression of what’s going on in your brain that’s also nice to look at,” he added.

My results will have been influenced by the fact that I was in a gallery full of 20th century British art, including lots of abstract paintings. The brain waves recorded on participants walking around the adjacent gallery of famous masterpieces by artists such as Van Gogh, Manet and Cézanne tended to show more glowing threads of recognition than corkscrews of confused contemplation. “Whether you mean it or not, when you go to a piece of abstract art, you tend to try to understand it,” MacNeil said. “If you’ve seen a painting before, you’re going to have a very different response and probably look at it in a less objective way.”

The Art Fund commissioned the project in response to the statistic that around 40% of Britons visit a museum or gallery less than once a year, and 1 in 6 said art had no effect on them. The charity hopes that providing brainwave data will be a fun, interactive way of showing how art affects people’s minds and emotions, and that this will help motivate new audiences.

A real neuroscientist, Dr. Ahmad Beyh of Rutgers University, was also on hand to clarify that the lightweight, wireless EEG headsets in use around the galleries are a far cry from the methods used in laboratory-based scientific analysis. Nevertheless, their ability to capture data in real time makes them “an excellent way to bridge the gap between the scientific world and the art world and see how art engages the brain.”

One of Beyh’s main research interests is how our brains perceive beauty. “An increased experience of beauty, whether in art, music or other people, correlates with increased activity in the area just behind the center of the forehead, called the medial orbitofrontal cortex,” he said. “The same region is implicated in experiences of pleasure, the experience of reward and seeking reward, and also in introspective thoughts or daydreaming.”

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