Why is art so rewarding to the brain?

Several years ago, I received a comment on my website stating that:

Work and chores get done, because the world needs them to be done. #Art gets done because there is an internal need for it to happen.

I grew up doing a lot of arts and crafts, which did not necessarily stem from the outside, such as someone actively teaching me.  I liked the process of creating something and seeing how it comes out in the end. It was a cathartic experience for me. But why is it so rewarding?

Communicating through art

The biological reward system has evolved to increase our chances of survival in tough times.  For example, the satisfaction we get from a good meal is due to the fuel it provides for our body.  Animals will learn to press a lever on cue, as long as they are rewarded with a food pellet.  But what about art?  Why does it bring us such satisfaction?  Why do some people (but not others) crave it so much?  And why do some people enjoy viewing art, whereas others primarily enjoy creating it?  

Why do some people enjoy viewing #art and others enjoy creating it?

Compensating for neurological conditions

Expressing yourself through art provides an additional channel for interaction and communication.  Literature indicates a strong correlation between mental disorders and artistic expression, such as in the case of Vincent van Gogh, who suffered from epilepsy, depression, anxiety and, according to some accounts, bipolar disorder.  He used art as a method for processing his emotions.

In addition, in the case of physical brain dysfunction, “The turning to communication through art in lieu of language deficits reflects a biological survival strategy… It is adversely affected when these systems are dysfunctional, for congenital reasons (savant autism) or because of acquired brain damage (stroke, dementia, Parkinson’s), whereas inherent artistic talent and skill appear less affected.”

Literature indicates a strong correlation between #MentalDisorder and artistic expression, such as in the case of Vincent van Gogh, who suffered from epilepsy, depression, anxiety and, according to some accounts, bipolar disorder.

Providing an additional channel for interaction

In the healthy population, “Art is a symbolic communicative system practiced only by humans, and argued to have become a fully practiced behavior at a time when early human social groups grew in size and complexity, and communication through language and art promoted cohesion and survival.”  There is a lot of evidence suggesting that a high percentage of artists are introverts and art may serve as an additional channel for their interaction with society. And this is where I can relate.

In our daily lives, we are constantly bombarded with face-to-face social interactions, of which not all may necessarily be pleasurable.  Art provides a way to unwind from this feeling of chaos. Creating art is a meditative process and results in a feeling of “flow”, as described by Michaly Csikszentimihalyi.   

#Art provides a way to unwind from the feeling of daily chaos.

Rebalancing

One of the questions I have often asked myself is why, from the biology perspective, do people like different types of art? For example, it is known that people enjoy fatty foods, because they provide more fuel and were needed by our ancestors to survive. We may crave something salty to replenish electrolytes. But why do people have different, and often polar opposite, tastes in art?

According to Alain de Botton and John Armstong in their book “Art as Therapy”, art can also help us rebalance the parts of ourselves that we think we are missing:

Art can put us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing dispositions, and thereby restore a measure of equilibrium to our listing inner selves.

Since we are not all missing the same things, the art that has a capacity to rebalance us, and therefore arouse our enthusiasm, will differ markedly.

We hunger for artworks that will compensate for our inner fragilities and help return us to a viable mean. We call a work beautiful when it supplies the virtues we are missing, and we dismiss as ugly one that forces on us moods or motifs that we feel either threatened or already overwhelmed by. Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.

What does all of this mean for you?

Over the past several years, there has been a huge movement to bring humanities and science/medicine together. In most cases, such as the Ascensus Journal at Weill Cornell, the focus is on exposing medical students and staff to music, poetry and visual arts to make them more “well rounded”. It is also supposed to help them develop more empathy and relate better to their patients.

But what about the flip side? People who work in law, finance, journalism, and other non-biomedical professions could certainly balance their life with a healthy dose of science. Just like scientists benefit from talking about art and music, people from other fields should be able to speak confidently on matters of science (and not get themselves into a pickle like this one). And what could be a better conversation starter than a beautiful, scientifically-inspired artwork!

Just like scientists benefit from talking about #art and music, people from other fields should be able to speak confidently on matters of #science.

“Deep Within”, 2020

Art is my emotional outlet and my oasis.  I use art to express my feelings and work through life issues.  Come join me on this journey of letting go of control and letting the creative process take over.  You will get access to all of the behind the scenes footage and see the major breakthroughs that translate into new artwork.

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