• Meghan McCarthy

Neuroaesthetics: Neuroscience of Creating and Viewing Art

In 2012, studies found that only 52% of Americans consider themselves creative¹¹. But, how do you truly define creativity?

Creativity stretches far beyond stereotypes of sketching still life. The reason being: each brain expresses creativity differently. Maybe yours is unique through a favorite cereal combination, eclectic style, pristine handwriting, or the way you play a sport. This is the foundation of neurodiversity. Every brain is specialized and diverse.

Your brain is an artist. It builds neural pathways and circuits special to you. It’s no surprise, then, that art has a profound impact on the brain. Deemed ‘neuroaesthetics,’ researchers around the world are trying to understand the neuroscience behind this impact¹.


Neuroaesthetics considers the effects of both creating and viewing art. Semi Zeki was the first neuroscientist to term the field in the 1990s¹⁰. Researchers use technology like MRIs, EEGs and fitness devices on neurodiverse brains. They measure markers such as brain activity, temperature, and heart rate. Neuroaesthetics’ aim to understand the benefits of art on a neurological level.

The goal is simple. By understanding its benefits, art can be an integrative therapy for holistic wellbeing. Art therapy can be an alternative or supplement treatment to many disorders. Examples include Alzheimer’s, Parkin’s, mood disorders, depression, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and PTSD. But, the reach of such work expands to the entire population.

Art allows universal human expression and communication, regardless of mental or physical status¹⁰. Art is vital to promoting health, and the first step is understanding how the brain processes it.

The Neuroscience behind Art Processing

On a superficial level, art is an external stimulus for the brain to process. However, scientists are now discovering it’s far more complicated than that. There are many factors to an individual’s creativity and its expression. Researchers believe that an individual’s creativity is determined by their²:

  • Personality

  • Intelligence

  • Release of neurotransmitters

  • Brain size (used when comparing different species)

Have you heard of being either ‘ right or left’ minded? Think again. Researchers have studied artists suffering traumatic brain injury (TBI). When patients have damage on one side of their brain, their levels of creativity are most often unaffected post injury. This suggests that there is no singular pathway to how the brain produces art. Instead, creativity is a bilateral process. This means that it occurs on both sides of the brain².

The brain views art as a puzzle. It wants to solve the meaning behind the stimuli.

Art activates investigative areas of the brain. Specifically, it engages the frontal lobe, which contributes to learning and processing¹. Recent studies used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRs) to study brain activity during creative processes⁵. They found that art activated connections between the frontal and parietal cortices.

Imagine the frontal and parietal lobes as friends. This finding means that the two friends hang out most when viewing or creating art.

Art also engages the default mode network (DMN). The DMN makes up the medial prefrontal cortex and parietal cortices⁷. These areas are associated with emotion, self awareness, identity, imagination, compassion, and autobiographical ideas. DMN also releases “feel good hormones” such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin¹⁰.

Viewing art activates neurons in the brain’s reward circuit. Neurons that all connect under a particular stimulus create circuits².

Think about an electric circuit. You flip a switch, and the electrical system activates a response. Your

brain’s reward circuit is very similar, and art is one to flip its switch.

The brain’s reward circuit is composed by the ventral striatum, medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), orbitofrontal cortex, and amygdala⁵.

  • The orbitofrontal cortex is vital to the circuit. It is responsible for instant gratification and pleasure⁹.

  • The prefrontal cortex is associated with control of emotions and actions . This may explain why individuals feel happier after doodling or walking around an art museum.

Any creative practice increases the engagement of the brain’s reward circuit.

You don’t have to paint to reap the benefits.

By simply viewing art, your brain tries to understand the piece from the artist’s perspective. This builds and strengthens new pathways.

The Role of Your Hormones

Hormones also play a crucial role in art processing. One in particular is dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with emotion, personality, and cognition³. Patients with Parkinson’s have dopamine deficiencies. Because of this, they are commonly given medication to increase dopamine levels. Studies show that patients have an increase in their creativity as a result².

Creative neurodiversity may be partly caused by the density of D2 receptors in the brain². These receptors are groups of neurons that release dopamine. The more you have, the more dopamine is released. People who have a high number of D2 receptors may be more creative in conventional ways.


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