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Art of the Unconscious

by Quinn O’Connor

art by Jillian Smith

Art has been a means of unification for centuries and its significance in cultural growth and the preservation of history is indisputable. Whether it be music, writing, dance, theater, or drawing, the arts have been a universal medium for expression and communication since the origins of humanity. The first accounts of art, cave drawings, and hieroglyphics date back to as early as 45,000 years ago [1]. From the emphasis on individualism and the beauty of human anatomy during the Renaissance era to the exploration of dreams and the unconscious throughout the surrealism movement, much of how our identities function within modern society can be traced back to this ubiquitous and fundamental strand of human culture.

Sensory Perception of Art:

Why is the brain drawn to our sensory-oriented outlets? Where does our admiration for creativity truly originate? Early theories of creativity proposed that individuals with greater creativity have less hemispheric dominance, meaning that they have a lower tendency to rely heavily on either the left or right side of the brain and instead utilize both interchangeably [2]. These hypotheses originated from the erroneous assumption that the right hemisphere was specialized in imagination and intuition while the left hemisphere in logical processes such as reading or mathematical functioning. Modern research has shown that the functions of each hemisphere aren’t so distinct–for example, the brain will call upon regions throughout the brain in the processing and/or creation of art [2]. Extensive literature has now shown that, while the two halves of the brain may each seem to have different structures with varying cognitive roles, their functions are more synergistic than anticipated [3, 4]

An important characteristic of artists is their ability to emphasize visual attributes such as shapes, colors, or spatial positions [5, 6]. This emphasis is made possible through utilizing both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. But what happens when our neural processing does not function as intended? When the right hemisphere is damaged, the brain scrambles the spatial arrangements between the different components of an image. When the left hemisphere is damaged, drawings become oversimplified but the spatial organization remains unobstructed. A combination of each deficit has been observed in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease or Traumatic Brain Injuries alike and has been called hemispatial neglect [5, 6]. In these cases, artists tend to concentrate on the right side of their paintings,

whereas the left side is either lacking color or entirely blank [5]. In reality, when the brain is exposed to an external stimulus such as an art piece, it calls upon numerous regions in order to process the given sensory input [2].

When viewing artwork, the eye’s retina utilizes specialized neurons called rods and cones [7]. These neurons are classified as photoreceptors due to the fact that they capture light and turn it into electrical signals that can be transmitted to the brain through the optic nerve. Once the signals have arrived, they are relayed through what are called the ventral (“what”) and dorsal (“where”) streams. These streams allow us to determine what we are surrounded by and where it is in case we need to react. A majority of the remaining process occurs in the occipital lobe’s visual cortex, where the input sent by your eye is translated into information for your brain to elucidate [7]. Since the human brain can correctly identify images that have been seen for as little as 13 milliseconds, the longer an individual views a painting, the more input is being sent to the brain [8]. This explains why when you look at works by artists such as Salvador Dali or Bev Doolittle, who are famous for disguising enigmas within their paintings, you slowly begin to notice more and more pieces of the puzzle that they are trying to convey [9].

Together, each of the aforementioned components is critical not only in identifying colors, but in spatial recognition, distance and depth perception, and face and shape recognition [7]. So, the next time you are spending your Sunday at The Met with hyper-realistic depictions of biblical anecdotes by Jacopo Tintoretto and abstract collections of primary colored squares by Piet Mondrian, consider how art is uniquely stimulating your brain as it rapidly organizes patterns and makes sense of each individual shape and color.

Attention in Art Perception:

Beginning during infancy, your brain began to develop bidirectional, or top-down and bottom-up, processing in order to interpret the world around you [5]. Similarly to a bidirectional road in which you are able to drive in either direction, the human nervous system carries information to and from the brain and body [7]. In bottom-up processing, the stimulus perception drives processing, without any preconceived ideas; whereas in top-down processing, we utilize our prior knowledge to drive how the information is processed. The brain begins this process by breaking down each element of a scene into individual components such as spots of light, lines, shapes, or movement [7]. As the body matures and interpretation advances, these scenes become increasingly complex as we begin to identify details like the rustling of leaves, the foot placement of a gymnast, or the type of vehicle ahead, building on stimuli interpretations from previous experiences. Bidirectional processing is what truly allows us to make reliable and time-efficient generalizations and decisions throughout our day-to-day lives, as our brain constantly processes new information in our environment [10]. Many types of artistic expression, however, emanate the idea that the appeal of art lies in the idea that art is not confined to the restrictions of our conscious mind. Instead, it often aims to find new ways to tickle the brain in its representation of either tangible objects or abstract concepts [10].

Take the surrealist movement, for example, in which artists challenge the rationalism of the mind and the constrictions of society’s oppressive systems [11]. This genre of artwork was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious, which is the idea that the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behavior [12]. Surrealist artwork calls upon a psychological phenomenon called automatism, which consists of involuntary actions and processes that the brain conducts subconsciously such as breathing or a nervous lip quiver [11]. Using bidirectional processing, the brain interprets whether the stimuli should be categorized as artwork, using clues from the artist’s style and medium [10]. As discussed previously, research has revealed that exposure to certain types of art evokes activity in

specific parts of the brain [10]. This poses the question: how does this neural process change when the artwork is more avant-garde than a simple portrait and displays images in an irrational juxtaposition to reality, such as in the case of many surrealist works of art [13]. By manipulating the portrayal of everyday objects, artists take something that is typically familiar to our visual system and modify it to offer something new to the viewer’s brain.

Another example of surrealism's interaction with the brain can be seen in the works of Dali, as mentioned previously, due to his incorporation of dream-like, irrational elements into his paintings. Viewers often spend extended periods of time trying to comprehend his works as he challenges their perception of reality, forcing the brain to process and make sense of these seemingly nonsensical elements. Studies have shown that when viewing surrealist art, there is increased activity in the prefrontal and occipital cortices, indicating that the brain is working to make sense of the abstract and surreal elements presented in the artwork [14]. This interaction between surrealism and the brain highlights the power of art to challenge our perceptions and expand our understanding of the world around us.

Memory & its Contributions to the Emotional Perception of Art:

The physiology of emotion is extremely complex as the brain houses more information than the conscious mind is able to reveal [15]. When interacting with others or replaying a memory in one’s imagination, the brain draws from sensory cues such as facial expressions, body movements, and vocal intonations, allowing emotions to be displayed without a conscious indication of their origin [15, 16]. As a result, many emotions instigate fluctuating hormonal and neural responses, taking a toll on the body. For this reason, trauma is now believed to be both a psychological and physiological experience [15].

The limbic system, often referred to as the emotional nervous system, is essentially the control center for memory formation and survival instincts [17, 18]. This system is significant in art therapy as it plays a pivotal role in remembering traumatic events as well as understanding how expressive art therapy can be valuable in recovery [17, 18]. In short, memory has two components: short-term and long-term [7]. Short-term memory is the capacity to retain information for short periods of time, whereas long-term memory can be broken down into conscious (explicit) and unconscious (implicit) memory. Implicit memory includes performing actions that we do not necessarily think about, such as breathing or how something makes us feel [7, 19]. On the other hand, explicit memory is further broken down into episodic and semantic, where episodic memories are specific recollections of events and semantic memories are general facts or knowledge about the world [7]. When an individual is exposed to a situation that reminds the brain of a traumatic event, they may experience the same emotional response while being unable to pinpoint where it came from [15]. This

indicates the presence of an implicit memory in the brain that is not linked to an explicit counterpart, thus creating difficulty in identifying why this situation may have caused a strong emotional response to occur [15].

In one study in which subjects were presented with artwork and asked to provide feedback, findings showed that both realistic and abstract paintings caused increased activation in both the occipital lobe and limbic system [20]. Specifically, when the subject indicated that they preferred one piece of artwork over another, there was increased activity in the limbic system, indicating that our evaluation of a piece of art is heavily connected with our emotions. When we see a painting that we consider to be interesting or better fit our aesthetic preference, our brain makes an effort to translate its image into a memory [1].

Additional studies have shown that when participants were presented with two paintings, researchers found that paintings they deemed “beautiful” engaged the entirety of the brain, with the majority of the activity centralized within the orbitofrontal cortex and the motor cortex [21]. Contrarily, when the subject observed a painting that they designated as having less

visual appeal, or being “ugly,” the orbitofrontal and motor cortex were the only regions that

showed increased activity. Typically, the orbitofrontal cortex is engaged upon the introduction of rewards while the motor cortex is associated with movement, leading researchers to conclude that the judgment of beauty and aesthetic preferences are deeply intertwined with activity these respective regions: ugliness invokes a spike in motor cortex activity and a baseline increase in orbitofrontal cortex activity, whereas beauty produces the latter with the addition of baseline stimulation throughout the rest of the brain [21].

Art as a Therapeutic Methodology:

In a psychotherapeutic capacity, art is used to enhance memory retrieval, emotion processing, and the openness between a patient and their therapist in order to create a judgment-free environment [22, 23]. There are a few different types of art therapy that use various mediums of art such as dance and music, but the most common are those that utilize visual art [10]. As a practice, art can allow us to explore emotion through other sensory modalities and express what we are unable to vocalize. In therapy, asking a patient to draw what or how they are feeling before they vocalize it can allow them to interpret the origins of their emotions and how certain thoughts are causing them distress [10].

In practice, art therapy has become increasingly important, specifically with individuals battling trauma or chronic illness and in those with neurodegenerative disorders [15]. Specific to adolescents, art activities in early childhood attachment programs have been shown to assist in resolving relational problems in parent-child bonds as the brain develops more dominant and productive patterns. During infancy, the child’s connection with the parent is prominently mediated in the right cortex of the brain and as a result, tends to develop more quickly than the left with emotional stimulation. Thus, the output of the right brain is expressed in “non-word-based ways,” such as drawing, to describe feelings. This creates a scenario in which art therapy becomes a beneficial modality in working through attachment issues and other emotion-related disorders or experiences. Therapists and other mental health professionals are able to communicate with children that may be experiencing attachment disorders, before they are even able to vocally communicate as the left cortex continues to develop [15].

Art therapy can be used in anything from psychosocial care to rehabilitation, and the ways in which it is utilized often fluctuate on a case-by-case basis [15]. One study conducted by Dr. Cathy Malchiodi, a licensed mental health counselor and prominent advocate for art therapy in healthcare, details her work with an ovarian cancer patient who, while never describing herself as creative, used expressive art to depict her “struggle between life and death” and to strengthen her ability to find peace from any lingering frustration after her diagnosis [15]. All in all, art therapy can be a powerful tool for promoting mental health and well-being by harnessing the brain’s natural capacity for creativity and self-expression.


Art has been a fundamental part of cultures around the globe since the earliest accounts of human history. It is a medium allowing for expression and communication, unification and the preservation of heritage and tradition. The way we perceive and appreciate art is complex, involving cognitive processes through the brain, with many details remaining unknown. Sensory perception plays a crucial role in the appreciation of art, and the brain processes visual input in different regions that enable us to recognize shapes, colors, and spatial arrangements. Attention, through top-down and bottom-up processing, is another important component of the perception of art [7]. Through art, we have the unique opportunity to stimulate our brains, organize patterns, and think beyond the binary restrictions of our conscious. Art is not just about beauty but also about the intricate workings of the brain and how we interact with the world around us.


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