News Release: Research , School of Medicine

Jan. 6,  2011

Viewing Art Activates Brain's Reward Circuits

News Article ImageIn the Emory study, participants were asked to view a variety of images. Researchers compared brain participants' activity when viewing paintings versus photographs.

ATLANTA — Our brains appear to have an intrinsic response to "art for art's sake," researchers at Emory University School of Medicine have found.

What is art? Critics and historians have debated the question for years. Now imaging research has revealed that the ventral striatum, a region of the brain involved in experiencing pleasure, decision-making and risk-taking, is activated more when someone views a painting than when someone views a plain photograph.

The images viewed by study participants included paintings from both unknown and well-known artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Klee, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, as well as photographs representing similar subjects (see figure).

The results are published online in the journal NeuroImage.

The ventral striatum is part of the "reward circuit," a set of regions of the brain involved in drug addiction and gambling, says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine and psychology. Sathian is also medical director of the Center for Systems Imaging at Emory University School of Medicine and interim director of the Rehabilitation R&D Center of Excellence at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The reward circuit also includes other parts of the brain such as the orbitofrontal cortex. Sathian emphasizes that the reward circuit is not just activated by experiences such as gambling or drug-taking, but is also involved in reinforcing behaviors under conditions of uncertainty, such as financial decision-making, for example.

Many previous brain imaging studies, when examining humans' responses to art, have sought to examine the brain regions responsible for aesthetic preferences: whether an individual considers something beautiful or ugly. Typically, study participants could be asked to view an image and then provide a number to indicate how much they like it.

“We took an independent approach,” Sathian says. “This paper hasn't solved the problem of what art is. Rather, we can show that art does not activate just one process in the brain. There are a whole host of circuits involved.”

In the Emory study, participants were asked to view a variety of images. While participants were viewing the images, researchers scanned their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures changes in blood flow. They were not asked during the scan itself if they liked what they saw, or if they considered it art, in order to avoid biasing their responses with leading questions. Researchers compared brain activity when viewing paintings versus photographs.

Besides the ventral striatum, researchers found that viewing paintings activated the hypothalamus, a part of the brain linked to appetite regulation, and the orbitofrontal cortex, which has been linked to risk evaluation, detection of social rules and impulse control.

The parts of the brain activated by art images were independent from previously identified “Beautiful or ugly?” or “How much do you like it?” parts, the researchers found. Other imaging studies have shown that the amygdala, linked to emotional reactions, and the orbitofrontal cortex (but apparently a distinct set of regions from those highlighted in the Emory study) are involved in aesthetic preference.

The idea for the study was based on work by marketing experts Henrik Hagtvedt (now at Boston College) and Vanessa Patrick (now at the University of Houston), both of whom were at the University of Georgia when the study was conducted. Hagtvedt and Patrick had investigated the “art infusion” effect, where the presence of a painting on a product's advertising or packaging makes it more appealing. This led to the hypothesis for the present imaging study, that visual art would activate the reward circuit. Hagtvedt, a painter and art historian, chose the images used in the present study, along with first author Simon Lacey, PhD, research associate, and Amy Anderson, then a graduate student in the Emory Neuroscience Program.

“The art infusion effect is tied to the notion that art represents a distinct, universal and recognizable category of human behavior,” says Hagtvedt. “This category is not characterized by what is depicted, but by how it is depicted. Therefore, even art and non-art images with similar content should evoke different responses from viewers. The current study provides evidence that this is indeed the case. ”

The researchers did not separate subjects by education or culture. The participants (four males and four females) had an average age of 23. If the participants in the study were all art historians, or came from a developing country and had not visited museums or otherwise been exposed to Western art, they might well have shown a different pattern of brain activation when viewing the images, Lacey says.

“The thinking is that the reward circuit evolved to shape our brains' decision making, to provide reinforcement when decisions turn out to be beneficial,” Sathian says. “We find that the brain's responses to art may have a connection to the reward circuit and perceptions of luxury or social status, independent of whether an individual rates the image in question highly.”

The research was supported by the State of Georgia, the National Institutes of Health and the Veterans Administration.

S. Lacey et al. Art for reward's sake: Visual art recruits the ventral striatum. Neuroimage electronic publication before print (2010).

Writer: Quinn Eastman


The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service.

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