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Often when people talk about aesthetics, they do it dismissively — casting beauty aside in favor of function. But being surrounded by beauty or having access to it is a vital human need, and its absence has enormous psychological consequences.
Aesthetic joy and appreciation isn’t linked to the function of an object, but instead to its intrinsic qualities. When most people gaze at a sunset, it isn’t to consider the speed of light, the earth’s rotation or the molecules that deflect sunlight to make colors. Instead, they simply appreciate those incredible colors streaking across the sky as the day turns to night.
People approach art in the same way. Rather than consider the tools and techniques used to create the art, they appreciate it for its beauty. And thinking about an object in this way can improve mood and a person’s overall sense of well-being.
Scientists have done neuroimaging studies on people looking at a piece of artwork and found that the areas of the brain involved in reward light up, giving people an immediate dose of pleasure. Further, the areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation — the ventral and the dorsal striatum, the anterior cingulate and medial temporal areas — also light up, which means that considering a piece of art can positively affect mood.
One of the more interesting things about these studies is that the subject matter of the art piece didn’t necessarily matter when it comes to how it affects mood. The same areas of the brain light up whether the piece depicts rainbows and flowers or murder and mayhem. Researchers speculate that the reason behind this is that people looking at what might traditionally be considered a negative image can enjoy the negative feelings it elicits. This is particularly true for historical pieces of art. When a viewer is able to distance themselves from the subject of a piece and view it as an artifact, they can appreciate its beauty rather than be turned off by what it depicts. There’s a sense of safety in viewing art — a psychological distancing — because a viewer can look at a piece and appreciate it without experiencing what it depicts.
The conclusion here is that viewing art — appreciating aesthetics — causes immediate changes in the brain. It affects emotions and creates pleasure, whether the viewer is appreciating the piece or appreciating their appreciation of the piece. Viewing art is a self-rewarding experience for the mind.