Leading neuroscientist says 'Viewing art like being in love'

  • 8 May 2011

The conclusion of a recent experiment monitoring what happens in our brains when we view art says that it is more than just good for your health - and can have a big impact on the nation's happiness.

In a series of pioneering brain-mapping experiments, Semir Zeki, Professor of Neurobiology and Neuroaesthetics at University College London, has revealed that viewing art can give just as much pleasure as being in love.

Zeki concluded that viewing art triggers a surge of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine into the orbito-frontal cortex of the brain, resulting in feelings of intense pleasure.

“There have been very significant new advances in our understanding of what happens in our brains when we look at works of art,” said Zeki. ‘We have recently found that when we look at things we consider to be beautiful, there is increased activity in the pleasure reward centres of the brain. Essentially, the feel-good centres are stimulated, similar to the states of love and desire.”

Subjects were shown images of art on a screen, including works by Botticelli, Constable, Turner and Cézanne, while inside an MRI scanner, and their brain activity was mapped.

Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, who ran an exclusive on the story, Art Fund Director Stephen Deuchar said, "I have always believed art matters profoundly so it is exciting to see some scientific evidence to support the view that life is enhanced by instantaneous contact with works of art,” said Dr Stephen Deuchar.

With over £24 million of Art Fund support helping museums and galleries buy art over the last 5 years, a commitment to give much more, and the recent launch of the National Art Pass - giving great access to art all over the UK, the charity is doing it all it can to support museums and encourage people to visit the UK's outstanding art institutions.

Author Ian McEwan commented on the Art Fund's role: “A nation's well-being is not as easily measured as its GDP or economic growth, but it is probably more important. And our well-being is bound fast to the riches of our culture. Beautiful paintings that are sold and leave our country do not return, and their loss damages our collective health. The Art Fund plays a vital role in retaining our priceless heritage and needs our generous support; our well-being depends on it.”

Alexandra Shulman, Editor of British Vogue, said: "To visit great art is an inspirational activity that you carry with you, long after leaving the gallery and the wide access that the National Art Pass gives is irresistible."