Neuroaesthetics: How the Brain Responds to Art | ARTSMH (2024)



Neuroaesthetics is an emerging interdisciplinary field combining neuroscience, psychology and the arts to understand the neural correlates of aesthetic experiences such as art and beauty (Pearce et al., 2016). Neuroaesthetics was first coined by Semir Zeki, a professor of neuroscience at University College London, who describes artists as neuroscientists in disguise, exploring the potential and capacity of the brain through employing different creative techniques (Zeki, 2001). He proposed two laws concerning the way in which artists may subconsciously utilise the mechanisms of the visual brain: constancy and abstraction.


Constancy refers to the function of the visual brain in “seek[ing] knowledge of the constant and essential properties of objects”; knowledge concerning the consistencies of the visual phenomenon is retained whilst dynamic properties are filtered out. Similarly, the process of painting an established subject matter involves filtering out details which are not recognised as consistencies to produce a static representation, differing from what is perceived directly by the eyes in motion. As opposed to deconstructing the image, the brain engages with the idea and feeling of the subject matter captured by the artwork. Observed phenomena do not exist outside of the brain and are perceived only in relation to existing beliefs and concepts; artists only need to capture the essence of the object by depicting its consistent features. An example of this is the recognition of faces from different angles, where the perception of the main consistencies of facial features, such as general shape and location, can produce the idea of a face despite excluding other details.


Abstraction defines the process of forming established categories called ‘abstractions’ through inductively collecting similarities and patterns in constituent data. Therefore, such generalisations can be applied to particular instances in a deductive manner, allowing the brain to process visual stimuli such as artwork. Basic abstractions include colour and shape , which are used to develop subjective, semantic abstractions such as the ideas associated with such sensory perceptions (Aviv, 2014). Artists can convey or challenge these abstractions to evoke certain feelings in those who experience the artwork. The detailed mechanism defining the relationship between abstract art and the brain is not as known to neuroscience, as is the difference between the underlying mechanisms of the perception of abstract and representational art.

Associated brain regions

The neural basis of how art is perceived and experienced has been studied through employing various neuroimaging techniques, notably fMRI scans. Aesthetic experiences heavily rely on processing within the visual centres such as the V1 cortex; activity within this area is regulated by perceptual context, displaying correlation with aspects of visual awareness, attention and perceptual organisation (Lamme et al., 2000). In addition, the visual brain consists of several processing pathways specialising in factors such as colour or shape (Cela-Conde et al., 2004).

A study by Kawabata and Zeki (2004) using fMRI scans found that the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC) was strongly activated across all participants when a painting was perceived as beautiful. A significantly lower activation level of the OFC was observed when the painting was seen as ugly, and an intermediate activation level was produced when the painting was viewed as neutral. Emotions play a large role in the experience of aesthetic stimuli due to the personal and subjective nature of perception. When asked to review artwork subjectively, as opposed to passively observing, participants displayed significantly high activation in the bilateral insula, attributed to its role in emotional regulation and expression (Cupchik, 2009). This may demonstrate the application of empathy and personal engagement when interpreting the meaning of an artwork. However, such inferences cannot be made from observing brain activity alone.


Neuroaesthetics is a unique field aspiring to determine the neural correlates of what are deemed to be some of the most fundamental yet inexplicable features of our human experience. Zeki hopes that the neural basis of “creativity and achievement” and “religious belief” will be uncovered, as well as “the relation between morality, jurisprudence, and brain function” (Zeki, 2001). The contemplation of our most personal, subjective experiences drives the uncertainty of the extent to which they are based upon unique neural mechanisms attributed to our life experiences, as opposed to possessing a universal neural basis: a question that neuroaesthetics seeks to answer.

Watch to learn - Semir Zeki on Neuroaesthetics


Aviv, V. (2014). What does the brain tell us about abstract art? Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 85.

Cela-Conde, C. J., Marty, G., Maestú, F., Ortiz, T., Munar, E., Fernández, A., Roca, M., Rosselló, J., & Quesney, F. (2004). Activation of the prefrontal cortex in the human visual aesthetic perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(16), 6321–6325. https://doi:10.1073/pnas.0401427101

Cupchik, G. C. (2009). Viewing artworks: Contributions of cognitive control and perceptual facilitation to aesthetic experience. Brain and Cognition, 70(1), 84–91. https://doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2009.01.003

Kawabata, H. & Zeki, S. (2004). Neural correlates of beauty. Journal of Neurophysiology, 91(4), 1699–1705. https://doi:10.1152/jn.00696.2003

Lamme, V.A., Supèr, H., Landman, R., Roelfsema, P.R. & Spekreijse, H. (2000). The role of primary visual cortex (V1) in visual awareness. Vision Research, 40(10-12), 1507-1521.

Pearce, M.T., Zaidel, D.W., Vartanian, O., Skov, M., Leder, H., Chatterjee, A. & Nadal, M. (2016). Neuroaesthetics: The cognitive neuroscience of aesthetic experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(2), 265-279.

Zeki, S. (2001). Artistic creativity and the brain. Science. 293(5527), 51–52.

Neuroaesthetics: How the Brain Responds to Art  | ARTSMH (2024)


Neuroaesthetics: How the Brain Responds to Art | ARTSMH? ›

Neuroaesthetics explores how our brain perceives and responds to beauty and art. By studying neural processes, it reveals how visual elements, emotions, and cognitive interpretations interact to create aesthetic experiences.

How does the brain respond to art? ›

Art also triggers a response in our brain's reward system. The act of creating stimulates dopamine production, providing us with a sense of pleasure and motivation to continue our artistic endeavor.

Is neurographic art scientifically proven? ›

In fact, according to the Vancouver Visual Art Foundation, neurographica has been scientifically validated and proven, and it is one of the most widely used psychological techniques in art therapy today.

How are neuroscience and art therapy connected? ›

Neuroscience and ART Therapy:

By engaging in the creative process, individuals can regulate their emotions, reducing anxiety and promoting emotional well-being. The act of creating art activates the reward pathways in the brain, releasing dopamine and promoting positive emotions.

What is the function of neuroaesthetics? ›

Neuroaesthetics draws from and informs traditional areas of cognitive neuroscience including perception, emotion, semantics, attention, and decision-making. The discipline is at a historical inflection point and is poised to enter the mainstream of scientific inquiry.

What part of the brain controls art? ›

The right hemisphere function is associated with creativity, emotion, intuition, and spatial ability—that's why it's thought of as the artistic side of the brain. It's also thought to be the home of your non-conscious mind (the part of your brain that runs autonomously or subconsciously).

How does the brain react to images? ›

When we see an image, we analyse it within a very short time, give the image meaning and embed it in a context. The human brain is able to recognise a familiar object within 100 milliseconds. A study by the renowned MIT estimates that as little as 13 milliseconds are sufficient to recognise even unfamiliar images.

What is the theory of neuroaesthetics? ›

Neuroaesthetics is the study of how aesthetic perception, production, judgment, appreciation, and emotional response are produced and experienced from a neurobiological basis.

What three things does neurographic art do? ›

Through creating a neurographic art practice you can: Relieve anxiety. Find peace. Reduce stress.

What is an example of a Neuroaesthetic? ›

Descriptive neuroaesthetics refers to the practice of mapping properties of the brain onto aesthetic experiences. For example, if color is important to the experience of Fauvist art, then it is likely that areas of the brain that process color will be engaged when looking at such art.

What is the link between art and mental illness? ›

History. It has been proposed that there is a link between creativity and mental illness. Major depressive disorder appears among playwrights, novelists, biographers, and artists at a higher rate than the general population.

Does art increase neuroplasticity? ›

If you think about it, any type of creative expression allows you to explore new ways to communicate and engage with the world, which encourages greater flexibility and changeability in our brains. This is known as neuroplasticity.

Is art therapy trauma informed? ›

Expressive arts therapy is used to establish and support a sense of safety, positive attachment and prosocial relationships. Reconnecting with a sense of safety is central to trauma-informed practice.

How does the brain perceive art? ›

This placement occurs through a process known as embodied cognition, in which mirror neurons in the brain turn things like action, movement, and energy you see in art into actual emotions you can feel. Embodied cognition starts when you look at a piece of art.

What is the peak shift in art? ›

Peak Shift is defined as the experimentally supported psychological phenomenon that refers to a subject's increased attraction towards magnified and /or multiplied renderings of the original object, captivating the attention of the subject.

When was neuroaesthetics invented? ›

An Emerging Field of Study and Its Pioneers

This study of the intersection of brain sciences and the arts was first coined “neuroaesthetics” in the late 1990s by Semir Zeki, renowned neuroscientist and professor at the University College of London.

How does the brain work when drawing? ›

Drawing increases many of the cognitive functions that researches typically label as the 'creative' and 'right brained' activities. Intuition increases. Produces positive brain chemistry like Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine.

What part of the brain appreciates art? ›

Affective processes involved in aesthetic appreciation seem to be mediated by the orbitofrontal (or ventromedial prefrontal – VMPFL) cortex,[22] caudate nucleus, anterior cingulated cortex and strengthening of early visual processes in the occipital cortex.

How does art heal the mind? ›

Art therapy is used to reduce conflicts and distress, improve cognitive functions, foster self-esteem, and build emotional resilience and social skills. It engages the mind, body, and spirit in ways that are distinct from verbal communication, according to the association.

How does art affect mental health? ›

Creative arts therapy is used to help treat mental health conditions because it can improve focus, assist with processing emotions, improve communication and increase self-esteem.

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