This Is Your Brain on Art

  • Nicole Graniero of the Washington Ballet demonstrates a leap, a move from "Swan Lake." MUST CREDIT: Photos for The Washington Post by Andre Chung; composite by May-Ying Lam, The Washington Post

The Washington Post
Sunday, October 08, 2017

If you think about it, having a great time at the theater defies logic in many ways. We enter a space where we’re surrounded by strangers. We’re bombarded with unusual actions and images, and understanding them can depend on deciphering a wordless language of symbols. Once meaning sets in, we risk displaying emotional reactions in public, which in other situations might lead to feelings of shame.

Yet, on a good night, at least, when we’re at a live performance we somehow overcome our inhibitions to laugh more, cry more and generally enjoy ourselves more than when we’re watching a show at home. The experience may absorb us so much that we even lose ourselves and feel connected to something larger.

How does this happen?

Some of the answers to art’s mysteries can be found in science. Art is considered the domain of the heart, but its transporting effects start in the brain, where intricate systems perceive and interpret it with dazzling speed. Using brain-imaging and other tools of neuroscience, the new field of neuroaesthetics is probing the relationship between art and the brain.

Whether it’s a concert, play, opera or ballet, seeing a live performance is a neural rush on many levels. As an example, let’s look at the ballet Swan Lake to see how it trips your brain cells, from the moment you take your seat.

Many of the leading neuroscientists studying art and the brain were interviewed for this story. Their findings suggest new ways to think about the arts and how we relate to them. What is presented here is a compilation of their theories.

We love to be entertained in a crowd

Social connection is one of the strengths of our species — it’s how we learn from others by imitation. We’re keenly attuned to the emotions and actions of people around us, because our brains are designed for this.

If, for example, you’ve ever gone to an experimental performance-art piece where there’s hardly anyone in the audience but you, and you’ve felt a little exposed and awkward, this is why. We don’t generally like being isolated from a group. We crave social connection. And the cues we get from those around us, whether in a ballpark, a movie theater or a concert hall, help our brains make sense of our surroundings. This starts from the moment we walk into a crowd.

An audience offers a rich social and sensory environment that engages several parts of the brain. The “social brain network,” which includes the temporoparietal junction and the medial prefrontal cortex, is involved in decoding facial expressions. It’s also used in social perception, like sensing that the person next to us is getting restless.

The “mirror neuron system,” which contains cells that represent actions, is activated when we detect the movements and emotions of other people. This system allows us to coordinate our behavior with those around us, to settle as the lights dim and applaud when others do. It also helps us perceive strong emotions and spread them. When we feel that others around us are emotionally moved — when they’re saddened, startled or delighted — our own emotions can become amplified, and sensed by the people next to us.

This social connection is part of a key function of our brains: making sense of human behavior, a large part of which is evaluating movement within us and around us.

Movement Is Irresistible

Major parts of the brain are mainly concerned with movement and sending motor commands to our muscles so that our bodies can function and we can move as we need to for survival.

The brain is highly stimulated by motion, body language, facial expression, gestures — all the motor perceptions that could affect survival and our success in social settings. These elements combine in the Swan Lake experience.

But we’re not only visually pulled to the movements of others. We feel them, in some small way, in our bodies. According to the mirror system theory, our brain automatically mimics other people’s actions through its motor system.

When a dancer leaps or turns, we may empathetically feel a soaring sensation in response.

Many scientists believe we map other people’s actions into our own somatosensory system, which conveys sensation through the brain and body and helps us empathize with others. This allows us to take in a performer’s separate motions as one psychologically rich phrase. A series of jumps becomes an expression of yearning, because we automatically grasp the emotion attached to it. Even in the wordless art of dance, with our brain’s capacity for empathy we can begin to discover meaning, and a story.

We’re Pulled in by a Story

A narrative conveys information from one person’s brain to another’s in an effective way. We can learn vicariously through another’s experience from a safe space, without really being involved, which is why storytelling is so powerful. We embark on a journey constructed by someone else and, as we see in Swan Lake, we can empathize with what the characters go through without suffering the full force of fresh heartbreak.

Swan Lake tells a rather straightforward story of good vs. evil. It centers on Princess Odette, who has been put under a spell and must live a double life as a swan by day, woman by night, until she finds true love.

Prince Siegfried pledges himself to her, but he breaks his vow when a seductive villainess named Odile, also known as the “Black Swan,” fools him into betraying Odette.

The ballet ends in tragedy — and paradoxically, we like that

Research shows we tend to empathize more with characters in sad stories, and this may trigger hormones related to consoling and bonding.

Going back to the brain bonus of being in an audience, sharing a strong emotional experience with others connects us and makes us feel good.

The Logic of Art Is a Neural Turn-on

Scientists studying various aspects of the arts believe certain components especially excite the brain. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran proposes several universal laws of art, or common patterns found in artworks across time and cultures. These principles powerfully activate our visual centers. In theory, they tap into evolved survival responses. Among those found in Swan Lake are isolation, contrast and metaphor.

Isolation: Singling out one element helps the brain block other sensory information and focus attention. This magnifies our emotional reaction, especially when the element is simplified to bare essentials. Odette is set apart from the rest of the cast, and she is recognizable as a swan with just a few gestures.

Contrast: The brain detects boundaries best when the edges are distinct, especially for objects next to each other. The black-and-white color scheme of “Swan Lake” sets the main characters apart.

Metaphor: Linking seemingly unrelated elements can heighten emotion and empathy. Our brains create meaning from Odette’s swan movements, and this deepens our perception of her pain.

Body Shapes Stir Different Emotions

Neuroscientist Julia F. Christensen and her colleagues at City, University of London, had subjects rate their emotions triggered by brief, silent videos of ballet dancers, with neither music nor facial expressions to influence them.

Soft, round and open body shapes elicited positive feelings, as in Odette’s whirling images of flight.

Edgy body shapes triggered negative emotions, such as the Black Swan’s spiky, asymmetrical moves. They’re impressive, but also a little alarming.

Music Is the Perfect Partner

In another study, Christensen and her colleagues showed subjects silent dance clips and ones that included music. The subjects wore fingertip sweat-detection devices to monitor their raw emotional responses. When the music and dance matched — that is, sad music plus sad dancing — the subjects’ bodily responses and their reported feelings were stronger. If the music did not match, the responses were weaker.

Something happens when emotionally compatible music and dance combine, which is more powerful than a random combination.

Putting It All Together

When you go to the ballet — or any other show — you’re entering into a highly controlled experience. If everything works as planned, all the elements contribute to a kind of shared consciousness. In effect, your billions of brain cells are interacting with billions of other brain cells, busily making the microscopic connections that yoke together the brains of those present with an almost inescapable force.

This happens from the moment we automatically tune ourselves to the audience. Soon we’re vicariously feeling and making meaning out of the actions on stage, watching a story unfold that connects us with the performers, responding to the magnetism of specific visual cues, experiencing heightened emotions as music and movement entwine and even bonding with those around us. It’s just as the artists — choreographers, directors, playwrights, composers, performers — intended. And this magical transformation starts within the architecture of one brain. Yours.

Art has emerged from the human brain for tens of thousands of years, and every human culture makes it. Yet scientists are only beginning to understand how the brain perceives and produces art, and why. Like so many artworks, the brain is largely an object of mystery. One secret yet to be discovered is how the fragile folds of matter locked inside our skulls can not only conceive art, create it and contemplate it, but can also experience being transported by it, out of the head, out of the body, out of space and time and reality itself.