Local Arts

What actually happens to our brains when we watch art happen? This, say scientists...


Having a great time at the theater defies logic in many ways.

We enter a space where we’re surrounded by strangers. We’re bombarded with unusual actions and images, and understanding can depend on deciphering a wordless language. Once we do understand, we risk showing our emotional reactions in public – which, in other situations, might lead to us feeling shame.

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Yet (on a good night at least) when we’re at a live performance, we may laugh more, cry more and generally enjoy ourselves more than when we’re watching a show at home. We may even lose ourselves, and feel connected to something larger.

How does this happen?

Using brain-imaging and other tools of neuroscience, the new field of neuroaesthetics is probing the relationship between art and the brain.

Using brain-imaging and other tools of neuroscience, the new field of neuroaesthetics is probing the relationship between art and the brain. Here’s a compilation of leading neuroscientists’ thinking on what happens when we watch art happen:

We loved to be entertained, in a crowd

Humans are good at social connection. We’re keenly attuned to the emotions and actions of people around us, because our brains are designed for this.

If you’ve ever gone to an experimental performance-art piece where there’s hardly anyone in the audience but you, and you’ve felt a little exposed and awkward, this is why. We crave social connection. And the cues we get from those around us, whether in a ballpark, a movie theater or a concert hall, help our brains make sense of our surroundings.

An audience engages several parts of our brains. The “social brain network” helps decode facial expressions. It’s also used in social perception, like sensing that the person next to us is getting restless.

The “mirror neuron system” is activated when we detect the movements and emotions of other people. This allows us to coordinate our behavior with those around us – to settle as the lights dim and applaud when others do. It also helps us perceive strong emotions and spread them. When we feel that others around us are emotionally moved – when they’re saddened, startled or delighted – our own emotions can become amplified, and sensed by the people next to us.

Movement is irresistible

Major parts of our brains are mainly concerned with movement – sending commands to our muscles so our bodies can function, and move as we need to for survival.

The brain is highly stimulated by motion, body language, facial expression, gestures – all the motor perceptions that could affect survival and our success in social settings. These elements combine in live performance.

But we’re not only visually pulled to the movements of others. We feel them, in some small way, in our bodies. According to the mirror system theory, our brain automatically mimics other people’s actions through its motor system.

When a dancer leaps or turns, we may empathetically feel a soaring sensation in response.

Many scientists believe we map other people’s actions into our own somatosensory system, which conveys sensation through the brain and body and helps us empathize with others. This allows us to take in a performer’s separate motions as one psychologically rich phrase. A series of jumps becomes an expression of yearning, because we automatically grasp the emotion attached to it. Even in the wordless art of dance, with our brain’s capacity for empathy we can begin to discover meaning – and a story.

We’re pulled in by a story

A story conveys information from one person’s brain to another’s, in an effective way. We can learn from a safe space, without really being involved, which is why storytelling is so powerful. We embark on a journey constructed by someone else and can empathize without suffering the full force of fresh heartbreak. (Research shows we tend to empathize more with characters in sad stories, and may trigger hormones related to consoling and bonding.)

And, from the audience, sharing a strong emotional experience with others connects us and makes us feel good.

The logic of art is a neural turn-on

Scientists studying various aspects of the arts believe certain components especially excite the brain. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran proposes several universal laws of art, or common patterns found in artworks across time and cultures. These principles powerfully activate our visual centers. In theory, they tap into evolved survival responses.


Isolation: Singling out one element helps the brain block other sensory information and focus attention. This magnifies our emotional reaction.

Contrast: The brain detects boundaries best when the edges are distinct. Costuming can do this especially well.

Metaphor: Linking seemingly unrelated elements can heighten emotion and empathy.

Body shapes stir different emotions

Neuroscientist Julia F. Christensen and her colleagues at City, University of London, had subjects rate their emotions triggered by brief, silent videos of ballet dancers, with neither music nor facial expressions to influence them. Soft, round and open body shapes elicited positive feelings. Edgy body shapes triggered negative emotions.

Music is the perfect partner

In another study, Christensen and her colleagues showed subjects silent dance clips and ones that included music. The subjects wore fingertip sweat-detection devices to monitor their raw emotional responses. When the music and dance matched – that is, sad music plus sad dancing – the subjects’ bodily responses and their reported feelings were stronger.

Putting it all together

When you go a show, you’re entering into a highly controlled experience. If everything works as planned, all the elements contribute to a kind of shared consciousness. In effect, your billions of brain cells are interacting with billions of other brain cells, busily making the microscopic connections that yoke together the brains of those present with an almost inescapable force. And this magical transformation starts within the architecture of one brain. Yours.