Neuroaesthetics is trying to work that out. It's a new field of research emerging at the intersection of psychological aesthetics, neuroscience and human evolution. The main objective is to 'determine the neuro-biological foundations and evolutionary history of the cognitive and affective processes involved in aesthetic experiences and artistic and other creative activities'. So certain styles of art will draw our attention, interest us, and appeal to us because they engage certain neural processes related to rewarding sensations. Other research has explored the impact of brain damage and neural degeneration on the production and appreciation of art and on aesthetic experiences. This line of research has revealed that such activities and experiences are not related to a single brain region or hemisphere. They emerge from the interaction of activity taking place in many different brain regions. Neuroaesthetics is an ongoing field of research, but my particular interest in it stems from the fact that many of my own paintings are now being used in therapy clinics, either as ‘decorative’ elements of the therapy room itself, or as actual focal points to facilitate therapy sessions i.e. such as in EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as ‘tapping’) and NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) etc. It seems that certain archetypal positive images may have a strong role to play in facilitating such therapies. The following observations were sent to me by Naomi Glendinning, a therapist in Northern Ireland who works with vulnerable youngsters; Many of the young people I support find it difficult to express verbally how they feel. They often find it hard to put a word on it. Sometimes they don't have to, as through art, painting, clay, drawing, their emotions come to light. I, as the practitioner have to be careful not to place my interpretation on it but 'hold' the child in a safe space, through our therapeutic alliance and explore it with them, seeking to understand what it means to them. I have one of Jane's paintings in my therapy room and a couple of others within my home and have noticed recently, a lot of individuals are drawn to them and perhaps try to replicate them with their own interpretation during sessions. I feel they provide a sense of hope, courage, and support young people in realising their own strength and resilience, no matter what has occurred for them. It is said that 15 per cent of the therapy process is attributed to the method used; by using a child led approach it often leads to conversations about the paintings and actually encourages children to engage in the process of healing. I have ordered another painting and trust it will add to and strengthen the support I provide.
Although the brain's responses to art are complex and will take time to understand, there's a lot of evidence to suggest that art can stimulate/alter neurological responses. For instance we know that there is a direct relationship between mother-infant gaze and levels of the ‘love’ hormone oxytocin, which reduces anxiety and promotes bonding and mental stability, and this type of 'happy hormone' release may also be a factor when we ‘choose’ (or perhaps ‘bond with’!) a particular image or piece of art. If this is the case then it’s important to try to understand the ways in which art can be used to promote wellbeing. I am looking forward to learning more, of course, and will be updating this page as more information/research on this becomes available.
If you are a therapist using my art in this or other ways I would be very happy to hear from you, as all this information builds a picture helping us to understand how art can be used in a clinical setting.