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  • Writer's picturePeter Ashworth

How the Human Brain Perceives Abstract Art. What you should know.

Updated: Dec 5, 2023



Abstract art is a highly complex subject for us humans to understand and yet abstract art continues to be a source of enjoyment and interest for us in galleries, museums and especially our homes. So how does our human brain actually perceive and interpret abstract art into something rational?


Our human brain is so amazingly capable and complex that it is able to create a cohesive visual experience and appreciation from forms, colors and expression all put together, that are not rationally logical, while enabling our consciousness to derive meaning and emotion from abstract concepts.


As an artist (peterashworth.com) I want to understand how we as humans, and especially my clients - perceive abstract art, so I did some deep research into how our brain, our instrument of consciousness is able to create reasoning and joy from abstract art.


Abstract art is a unique form of art that often evokes strong emotions and reactions from viewers. Unlike representational art, which depicts recognizable objects or figures, abstract art typically features shapes, colors, and textures that are not immediately identifiable, especially is various sequences and arrangements together. This can make it challenging for viewers to understand or interpret the artwork, and raises the question of how the human brain perceives abstract art.




THE NEUROSCIENCE.

One way to understand how the brain processes abstract art is to look at the neuroscience behind visual perception. Studies have shown that the human brain has specialized neural circuits that process different visual features, such as color, form, and motion. These circuits work together to create a cohesive visual experience, but they can also function independently to extract specific information from a scene.


For example, the brain’s color processing circuit is responsible for identifying different hues and shades in an image, while the form processing circuit is responsible for detecting edges and shapes. When we look at an abstract artwork, our brains may automatically try to categorize the various visual features we see into these separate circuits.



However, abstract art can also challenge our brain’s typical processing mechanisms by presenting visual information that is not easily categorized or identified. This can lead to a feeling of emotional uncertainty or confusion in the viewer, as they struggle to make sense of what they are seeing. In many people this leads to deep mental engagement, brain processing and analysis, which is often the point the artist values, when creating the art. It is to transport the viewers mental focus away from the myriad of distractions and multi-tasking we all do many times a second, to become single-mindedly intellectually focused on the art itself.



WHICH PARTS OF OUR BRAIN’S PROCESS ART TO CREATE MEANING?

Visual cortex: The visual cortex is responsible for processing visual information, such as shape, color, and texture. It is located at the back of the brain and is divided into different regions that specialize in processing different types of visual information.

Frontal cortex: The frontal cortex is involved in higher-order cognitive functions, such as attention, decision-making, and emotional regulation. It plays an important role in the evaluation and interpretation of art.

Limbic system: The limbic system is a group of structures in the brain that are involved in emotion and memory. It includes the amygdala, hippocampus, and other structures that are important for processing emotional and motivational information.

Basal ganglia: The basal ganglia are a group of structures deep in the brain that are involved in movement, motivation, and reward processing. They are thought to play a role in the experience of pleasure and reward when viewing art.

Prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex is involved in a wide range of cognitive functions, including attention, working memory, decision-making, and social behavior. It is also involved in the evaluation and interpretation of art, and may play a role in the subjective experience of aesthetic appreciation.

Anterior cingulate cortex: The anterior cingulate cortex is involved in a range of cognitive and emotional functions, including attention, decision-making, and emotion regulation. It is also involved in the subjective experience of aesthetic appreciation, and may play a role in the processing of abstract art.



‘HOW’ THE BRAIN CREATES MEANING AND EMOTION THROUGH PROCESSING ABSTRACT ART.

Despite these challenges, studies have shown that the human brain is still able to derive meaning and emotion from abstract art. One study conducted by researchers at the University of Houston used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brain activity of participants as they viewed abstract paintings. The study found that viewing abstract art activated a network of brain regions involved in processing emotion and reward, including the ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex.


Other studies have suggested that the brain may use a process called “aesthetic appraisal” to evaluate and appreciate abstract art. Aesthetic appraisal involves comparing the visual features of an artwork to a set of internal standards or preferences that are shaped by an individual’s past experiences and cultural background. This process can lead to a sense of pleasure or satisfaction when an artwork meets or exceeds these standards.



The ability of a human to see artwork in the context of their uniquely personal past experiences, worldviews, and life experiences gives the viewer and the artwork – the ability to become one – providing a personalized and exclusive perception of a piece of art.


This might answer the questions of why art is so personal, why we each see art differently, and why different people prefer different styles of art (…and music, hobbies, sculpture, reading, architecture, movies, TV content, entertainment, etc).


OUR ART PREFERENCES AND APPRECIATION IS SHAPED BY AN OUR PAST EXPERIENCES, CULTURAL BACKGROUND, AND WORDVIEWS.

Our life experiences, and cultural understandings make art is truly personal, and the specific standards or preferences that guide aesthetic appraisal and appeal can vary widely between individuals. Some people may prefer bright, bold colors, while others may be drawn to more muted, subtle tones. Some may appreciate intricate, detailed textures, while others may prefer simpler, bolder or more minimalistic designs. This is why art created varies greatly by region, culture, and worldview.



Overall, the human brain’s perception of abstract art is a complex and multifaceted process that involves a combination of neural processing mechanisms, emotional responses, and aesthetic appraisal – overlaid with our worldview established through neuroplasticity over a lifetime. While the abstract nature of these artworks can make them challenging to understand or interpret at first glance, they also offer a unique opportunity for viewers to engage with their own individual perceptions and emotions.


ART IS ABLE TO CREATE EMOTION AND FEELINGS. IT CAN MAKE US FEEL ALIVE.

One of the most interesting aspects of abstract art is its ability to evoke such a wide range of emotional responses and feelings in viewers. Some people may feel a sense of calm or serenity when viewing an abstract painting, while others may feel energized or stimulated. Some may experience a deep emotional connection to a particular artwork, while others may simply appreciate its visual beauty.



For example, someone who has a strong connection to nature may be drawn to abstract paintings that feature organic shapes and colors, while someone who is more analytical or logical may appreciate artworks with more geometric or mathematical patterns.


In conclusion, the human brain’s perception of abstract art is a complex and dynamic process that involves a combination of neural processing mechanisms, emotional responses, and aesthetic appraisal. While the abstract nature of these artworks can make them challenging to understand or interpret, they also offer a unique opportunity for viewers to engage with their own individual perceptions and emotions. Whether we experience a sense of pleasure, confusion



Peter Ashworth.


Peter Ashworth is an impact artist whose purpose is to inspire people to feel alive, take them on a journey of transformation, and help them live their best creative life.


He believes his art should engage, entertain and uplift his customers to express their creative nature, to spark their imagination, and their desire to live creatively. He has an attraction to iconic life moments, whimsy and pop culture, and has a keen eye for color, progressive design, and subject matter honed over 30 years as a branding and marketing expert. His art is created to be a centerpiece, an experience, to mentally engage the viewer. He works across six different subject areas, each with a unique purpose of creating life-moment reactions and mental engagement with his viewers in the habitats and environments where his art is located.


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