Brain finds pleasure in processing abstract art

Studies show we are adept at discerning the intention of design over random doodlings, writes WILLIAM REVILLE

Studies show we are adept at discerning the intention of design over random doodlings, writes WILLIAM REVILLE

I RECENTLY VIEWED an exhibition of abstract paintings by the artist Josef Albers in the Lewis Glucksman Gallery at UCC.

As usual, when I look at abstract art I find some of the images vaguely pleasing to the eye but many images make little impression. Also, I am unable to explain why some of the images please my eye and some do not. I understand that this is a very common reaction, so the suspicion is naturally widespread as to whether or not there is any real merit in abstract painting. Well, science has confirmed that abstract art appeals to the human brain and this research is reviewed in an interesting article by Kat Austen in New Scientist, (July 14th, 2012).

A new discipline called neuroaesthetics was founded about 10 years ago by Semir Zeki of University College London. It aims to discover the neurological basis for the success of artistic techniques. Most people find the blurred imagery of Impressionist paintings appealing and the new studies show that these images stimulate the amygdala, the area in the brain geared to detect threats in our peripheral vision. The amygdala plays a big role in our emotions, which may explain why we find Impressionist paintings so moving.


The images in abstract paintings do not directly picture anything in the real physical world. The question therefore naturally arises as to whether we would find random lines, shapes and colours daubed on canvas by animals or small children equally as pleasing to the eye as the work of professional artists.

Angelina Hawley-Dolan of Boston College, Massachusetts, did an experiment to answer this question (Psychological Science, volume 22, page 435). Volunteers viewed pairs of paintings, one painting of each pair being the work of a famous artist and the other the doodle of an amateur, infant, chimp or elephant. One-third of the paintings were unlabelled and two-thirds were labelled – however sometimes the labels were mixed up. The volunteers generally preferred the work of professional artists even when the label said it was the work of a chimp or an elephant. Apparently we can sense the artist’s vision even when we cannot explain why.

Abstract painting generally bears no likeness to anything in the real world, but some work is ambiguous and one can begin to discern vaguely familiar shapes in it after a while.

Other studies have shown that when people struggle to find familiar shapes and are successful, they rate the work as “powerful”. Brain scans show very active neural activity as they struggle with the work. The brain sees the work as a puzzle and is pleased when it finds a solution.

Most readers will have seen abstract paintings by the famous Dutch painter Pieter Modrian (1872-1944). Modrian’s abstract work is exclusively made up of horizontal and vertical lines outlining blocks of colour. The paintings look childishly simple but eye-tracking studies show that the patterns are carefully composed. Volunteers’ eyes linger longer on certain places when viewing the original paintings but they pass more rapidly across the work if the painting is rotated. The volunteers also find the original orientation of the work more pleasurable. Readers can easily check out this effect using a book of abstract paintings. Also, making even small changes to the patches of colour in the original painting markedly lessens the enjoyment felt by the viewer. Other studies show that manipulating the original paintings reduces neural activity in areas of the brain linked with interpretation and meaning (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, volume 5, page 98). It seems that our minds note the deliberate arrangements in the paintings.

Many abstract paintings show fractal patterns. Fractal patterns repeat at different scales and are common in nature, eg clouds, branching pattern in trees, outline of mountain peaks, etc. Since our visual sense evolved in the outdoors where it constantly confronted fractal patterns, it may be naturally attuned to process such types of scenes. This and other inbuilt characteristics of our visual senses might explain the longevity of some artwork as opposed to ephemeral fashionable works.

Of course, scientific validation that the mind can be pleased by professional abstract painting does not prove we are dealing with great art but rather that our minds can somehow detect the artists’ intentions, is somewhat pleased with this and can differentiate professional work from random doodles.

How to accurately rate the value of abstract painting is another matter, but there is more to it than the verdict of Al Capp, the American satirist, quoted by Austen, who said abstract paintings are “the product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered”.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry, and public awareness of science officer at UCC.