Why your brain likes abstract art even when you don't

Apr 10, 2015

You may not think you like abstract art… but your brain is saying otherwise.

Out of all of the types of painting, abstract art may be most likely to inspire mixed opinions (or even snide commentary). But regardless of what you think about drip paintings or cubism, the category-defying work has a unique effect on our brains. It turns out that abstract art can help you think more creatively!

Dr. Vered Aviv of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance looked at several studies regarding abstract art in the publication Frontiers of Human Neuroscience. Below are some of her fascinating findings.

Abstract paintings make you happy

One 2004 study indicates that in a strict sense, our brains “prefer” representational art, which causes more brain activity associated with reward systems. Yet, another study shows that while representational artworks are classified by observers as “more interesting,” abstract paintings evoke more positive emotions. Perhaps our brains are up to a little abstract challenge?

Your brain doesn’t quite know how to categorize it

Another fMRI study demonstrates that different categories of painting -- landscape, portrait, and still life -- evoke activity at localized and category-specific brain regions. Abstract art doesn’t have its own special category of brain activity, but instead activates responses in parts of the brain that are activated by all types of art. It seems that our brain processes abstract art by understanding that it doesn’t belong in any other category.

People tend to dwell on figurative details when looking at representational art. By contrast, abstract art lets the brain ‘scan’ the whole surface of a painting rather than drawing its focus to specific features. While abstract art is less closely linked to our memories, associations, or emotions, it may offer us a reward of a different kind -- a slight detachment from reality.

Aviv theorizes that abstract art may encourage our brains to explore new associations and emotional paths, possibly even forming new creative links in our brains.

Freelancers, are you fans of abstract art? Why or why not?

Antonia Blair likes all things related to art, design, and tech. Follow her on Twitter: