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Art and psychological well-being

A summarY: linking the brain to the aesthetic experience


The aesthetic experience consists of appreciation and pleasure. It may encompass both an appreciation of the utilitarian properties and intrinsic qualities of the work; and, for this reason, may be considered a disinterested process (Kant, 1970). Aesthetic responses are a combination of a variety of cognitive processes, ranging from perception to the experience of emotion. While the experience of art is highly personal, it will be broken down and explored through a global biological mechanism underlying aesthetic processes. 

Some suggest that aesthetic processes involve a reward system, linking it to pleasure (Silvia, 2005); with a plethora of recent studies (Thomson et al., 2018) promoting the link between mental well-being and art by using it as a therapeutic tool. However, exactly how the aesthetic experience triggers emotional states and promotes well-being is debatable (Daykin et al., 2018). A widely accepted theory by Chatterjee & Vartanian (2016), however, suggests the aesthetic experience to be a result of bottom-up stimulus properties and top-down cognitive appraisals. 

Neuroimaging techniques are able to tell us how discrete emotional responses tied to art are associated with brain circuitry involved in pleasure and reward [M1]. In one study (Kawabata & Zeki, 2004), participants showed activity in reward-related parts of the brain; in particular, the medial orbital cortex, when shown an image they rated as pleasing. In a similar way, the activation of emotion processing network that comprises of the anterior cingulate, medial temporal areas and the ventral and dorsal striatum, are highly associated with mood changes in response to sad or happy classical music (Mitterschiffthaler et al., 2007). 

Art in a museum 

Research has shown museums to be suitable settings for therapy (Treadon et al., 2006) (Click here to read more about Art Therapy in Museums). Interestingly, elements of a museum setting have been identified to facilitate treatment goals, including psychological, social and environmental aspects (Salom, 2011). Galleries and museums, unlike hospitals or clinics, are non-stigmatizing settings. It is also common practice to take part in reflection and group communication when visiting; a component that facilitates therapeutic processes. Evidently, the use of psychophysiological measures has found that museums lead to a decrease in stress, and promote health.  

There has been much empirical literature on the exposure to art on physiological changes. For instance, exposure to figurative art has shown to lower systolic blood pressure, leading to relaxation of the human body (Mastandrea et al., 2018). Results from an between-subjects study design (n=64) in which participants were assigned to visiting figurative art, modern art exhibitions and a control visit to a museum office, supports fluency theory; processing ease to increase positive emotional responses to artwork (Reber et al., 2004). In light of the above, it is possible that the lower the level of ambiguity that often characterizes figurative art, the greater the relaxing effect on the body’s physiology. 


Neurological underpinnings 

While much of our understanding of linking art and well-being is largely unclear, neuroimaging evidence will be reviewed to explore how the aesthetic experience may provoke emotions in the beholder. 

Generally, areas of emotional and reward-related responses, specifically the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) are correlated to the aesthetic experience of beauty (Kawabata & Zeki,  2004); suggesting such experiences to be emotionally positive and rewarding. Notably, metabolic activity in such areas increases as a function of aesthetic, but not perceptual judgment of paintings (Ishizu & Zeki, 2013). This demonstrates that the preference for particular subjective aesthetics is regulated within the reward-related network. Other studies (Cela-Conde et al., 2004) found that the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex responded more when participants judged images as beautiful to when images were judged as not beautiful. Consistent with these findings, Vartanian & Goel (2004) highlighted distinct patterns of neural activity for pleasant and unpleasant paintings. And in this study, it was found that the bilateral occipital gyri and left cingulate sulcus triggers greater response for preferred stimuli. This is sharply contrasted to when activation in the caudate nucleus decreased significantly for decreased preference ratings. Neuroimaging techniques support the idea that aesthetic judgment is modulated by a motor component. And as we see, dynamic artworks can engage systems via features that represent particular emotions (Freedberg & Gallese, 2007). 

Such compelling evidence supports the claim that the experience of art is a self-rewarding activity, irrespective of the emotional content of the artwork [M1]. In particular, the setting of an artwork may heighten a positive response towards images with negative content (Gerger et al., 2014). 

Without doubt there are many questions still open when it comes to connecting art and mental health. It remains unclear as to whether the use of art to improve well-being should weigh affective responses over the ability for the beholder to determine the meaning of the work itself. 



Mastandrea, Stefano, Fagioli, Sabrina, & Biasi, Valeria. (2019). Art and psychological well-being: Linking the brain to the aesthetic emotion. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 739.

Silvia, Paul J. (2005). Emotional responses to art. Review of General Psychology, 9(4), 342-357.

Thomson, LJ, Lockyer, B, Camic, PM, & Chatterjee, HJ. (2017). Effects of a museum-based social prescription intervention on quantitative measures of psychological wellbeing in older adults. Perspectives in Public Health , 138 (1), 28-38. 

Daykin, Norma, Byrne, Ellie, Soteriou, Tony, & O'Connor, Susan. (2008). The impact of art, design and environment in mental healthcare: A systematic review of the literature. The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, 128(2), 85-94.

Chatterjee, Helen, & Noble, Guy. (2013). Museums, Health and Well-Being. Routledge.

Hideaki Kawabata, & Semir Zeki. (2004). Neural correlates of beauty. Journal of Neurophysiology, 91(4), 1699-1705.

Mitterschiffthaler, Martina T, Fu, Cynthia H.Y, Dalton, Jeffrey A, Andrew, Christopher M, & Williams, Steven C.R. (2007). A functional MRI study of happy and sad affective states induced by classical music. Human Brain Mapping, 28(11), 1150-1162.

Treadon, Carolyn Brown, Rosal, Marcia, & Wylder, Viki D. Thompson. (2006). Opening the doors of art museums for therapeutic processes. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 33(4), 288-301.

Salom, Andree. (2011). Reinventing the setting: Art therapy in museums. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 38(2), 81-85.

Mastandrea, Stefano, Maricchiolo, Fridanna, Carrus, Giuseppe, Giovannelli, Ilaria, Giuliani, Valentina, & Berardi, Daniele. (2019). Visits to figurative art museums may lower blood pressure and stress. Arts & Health, 11(2), 123-132.

Reber, Rolf, Schwarz, Norbert, & Winkielman, Piotr. (2004). Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: Is beauty in the perceiver's processing experience. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(4), 364-382.

Ishizu, T, & Zeki, S. (2017). The experience of beauty derived from sorrow. Human Brain Mapping, 38 (8), 4185-4200. 

Camilo J. Cela-Conde, Gisèle Marty, Fernando Maestú, Tomás Ortiz, Enric Munar, Alberto Fernández, Jean Dausset. (2004). Activation of the Prefrontal Cortex in the Human Visual Aesthetic Perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - PNAS, 101(16), 6321-6325.

Vartanian, Oshin, & Goel, Vinod. (2004). Neuroanatomical correlates of aesthetic preference for paintings. Neuroreport, 15(5), 893-897.

Freedberg, David, & Gallese, Vittorio. (2007). Motion, emotion and empathy in esthetic experience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(5), 197-203.

Gerger, Gernot, Leder, Helmut, & Kremer, Alexandra. (2014). Context effects on emotional and aesthetic evaluations of artworks and IAPS pictures. Acta Psychologica, 151, 174-183.