In the halls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City sits a large painting composed of four blocks of color . A thin off-white line sits horizontally across the top, followed by a thin strip of muted blue, a large block of dull yellow, and finally another large block of off-white. The painting, which seems simple at first glance, often evokes strong emotional responses—such as intense sorrow or awe—from the audience, bringing many to tears. The painting is “No.10,” created by Mark Rothko, who said “The fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate basic human emotions” . The appreciation of art, like that of Rothko and of many other artists, involves much more complex neurological processes than what originally meets the eye. In addition, the process of viewing art depends on the personal background of the viewer, which is built upon an individual’s experiences and values .
So, what exactly is art? Though there are many types of art, such as painting and sculpture, the ways the brain processes two dimensional (2D) and three dimensional visual stimuli involves different neural mechanisms; the focus here will be 2D art . As it follows, art must also be distinguished from everyday objects, as seeing a 2D painting of a flower is much different than seeing an actual flower. Scientists have found that people perceive art differently than they do everyday objects due to apparent stylistic choices that artists make . One study points out that while “in everyday perception basic visual features are crucial to identify objects themselves, artists deliberately use such features to alienate, to emphasize, to create a certain expression—and this is what viewers identify as a style” . In other words, the contrast created by colors, movement created by brushstrokes, and even the texture of paint are signs of artistic style and influence.
In order to understand how the brain processes art, we must first understand how we process visual information. When people first look at a painting, light reflects off of it, which is then detected by sensory receptor cells—called rods and cones—within the retina. This visual information is processed through a pathway which leads to the primary visual cortex, an area of the brain that plays an important role in making sense of it, similar to putting together brushstrokes to form a painting . Connected to the primary visual cortex are pathways in the brain which identify what the painting is, as well as where it is within the visual field . The most important part of making sense of visual information occurs in what scientists call bottom-up and top-down processing . Bottom-up processing deals with the basic visual stimuli that we perceive . In the prior example of Rothko’s “No.10,” this would involve seeing the colors, lines, and size of the painting. Top-down processing draws upon previous knowledge and experiences to place what we see into context . For example, one might associate the blue in “No.10” with a blue toy from one’s childhood, or the yellow with lemonade. However, these associations are dependent on the viewer’s personal background and memories. Together, bottom-up and top-down processing work to make sense of the raw visual information we perceive.
Art, like that of Rothko, can evoke strong emotional responses from viewers. Scientists know that much of the emotional responses created by art comes from the amygdala , the region in the brain which deals with experiencing emotions and linking them to memories . These emotional responses are inherently connected to the viewer’s personal experiences. For example, if a person associates puppies with happiness, then seeing a painting of a puppy would evoke happiness. If a person has had unpleasant experiences with dogs, their emotional reaction to the painting may be more negative. Moreover, certain features of art, such as sharp lines, can elicit strong negative emotions. Researchers found that neurological activity linked with fear in the amygdala is activated more by sharp lines as compared to curved lines. Sharpness, in this instance, refers to angles and edges, and scientists have hypothesized that we feel fear because we link sharpness with threats, though this requires further research .
Colors can also play a part in the emotional reaction to paintings. Unsurprisingly, the amygdala plays a major role in the emotional response to colors . Though some colors are stereotypically linked with certain feelings, such as blue being connected to comfort and security and yellow being associated with cheerfulness, experts believe that “color-related emotion is highly dependent on personal preference and one’s past experience with [a] particular color” . Therefore, the Rothko painting filled with blues and yellows may evoke different emotions from different viewers. What’s more, the hue, saturation, and brightness of a color play a role in emotional responses. Studies found that people respond most to highly saturated and bright colors . Ultimately, the degree of emotional response to different shades and hues of colors will depend upon the background of the viewer.
Closely relevant to the emotional response to art is the process of how viewing art generates feelings of pleasure. Iigaya et al. found that brain regions associated with reward processing are also associated with the process of enjoying visual stimuli . Reward processing is when our brain responds to and associates a stimulus with pleasure, and we respond to certain visual stimuli in the same way we respond to our favorite foods or smells . When a viewer perceives a visual stimulus, like a color or specific shape, groups of neurons in the brain assign the stimulus a rating called a hedonic value . A positive hedonic value means that someone likes the artwork, a negative hedonic value means that someone dislikes the artwork. However, the assignment of hedonic value to a stimulus depends on the background of the viewer .
Viewers’ responses to a piece of art is primarily determined by the knowledge and memories that make up who they are. When we look at art, we draw upon past experiences in order to make sense of what we’re seeing. Since everyone has different life experiences, numerous diverse connections can be linked to a single artwork. This explains why two people looking at the same piece may have extremely different opinions towards it . One example of the difference in viewers is cultural background, which can significantly impact the way an artwork is perceived . For example, the color white is associated with marriage in Western culture  and misfortune in Chinese culture . So, the white in the Rothko painting could set either a joyful or somber tone for the piece. Another difference in viewer background is artistic experience. Studies have found that non-artists and artists experience artworks differently due to the difference in background knowledge associated with making art . For example, while a non-artist might view “No.10” as blobs of random color, an artist would draw from their knowledge of color theory to see the contrast that Rothko created by using blue and yellow.
The genre of art presented can also affect viewer response. In particular, figurative art and abstract art generate widely different reactions from viewers. Figurative art, which includes portraits and still lives, requires more bottom-up processing . Viewers must recognize basic sensory input like shapes, lines, and colors, and draw less from previous experience to make sense of the art. Studies have found that humans are more naturally drawn to portraits mainly due to the quick recognizability of the common shapes and lines which indicate faces. Researchers have linked this to our repeated exposure to human faces during our early development—we become extremely familiar with the points on a face which make up a “face domain,” something akin to a map of the face . Abstract art, on the other hand, relies heavily on top-down processing, meaning that viewers must draw upon prior experiences in order to uncover what the artwork signifies to them . This is why viewers often have extremely different responses to abstract art. Aviv et al. found that viewing abstract art activates numerous regions of the brain as opposed to a single localized region, most likely due to the complexity of the artwork .
Understanding how the brain processes art can be useful to the field of art therapy. Art therapy partially involves looking at artistic images, and learning to create new positive associations with images, colors, or shapes that may have had otherwise negative associations . For example, if a person associates the color red with a traumatic injury, viewing art of red roses or red strawberries may change the color to bear a positive association.
Aside from art therapy, art has been proven to be incredibly subjective. Viewers standing next to each other may see and derive meaning from a piece in dramatically different ways. This begs the question, can we apply the rigidity of science to something so fluid as art? The emerging field of neuroaesthetics engages this question, and new research is accumulating every day. For example, a group of scientists recently explored the emotional reaction we have to 16th century art .
In a larger sense, understanding the interaction between the brain and art can enrich our experience of viewing art. When I see Rothko’s “No.10,” the yellow reminds me of the color of my childhood bedroom and the blocks of color are reminiscent of building blocks. The muted hue of the colors look faded to me, in the same way that my childhood is fading as I enter into adulthood. Overall, I feel incredibly nostalgic when I see this artwork. The next time that you see Rothko’s “No.10,” ask yourself: What do I associate these colors with? What emotions am I feeling, and what memories am I recalling? Why do I like or dislike this piece? Or, even, why am I crying or smiling? By probing into the brain and its processing of art, you may be able to answer these questions, and even better, see deeper into yourself.