Your Brain on Abstract Art

Contributed by Hank Hancock
December 15, 2016

We really recommend taking half an hour to listen to this fascinating conversation on the Science Friday radio show with Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel, about reconnecting the arts and sciences. It’s especially interesting to those of us who are studying evidence to inform design decision in healthcare facilities.

Dr. Kandel, whose new book is Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, addresses the conceptual split between the sciences and humanities, first articulated by C.P. Snow in 1959. He argued that these two camps are defined by irreconcilable differences in aspirations, goals, and methodologies. By contrast, Dr. Kandel sees a number of intriguing intersections.

Scientists in cognitive psychology and neurology, for example, are studying deeply human experiences of memory, sensation, and behavior. At the same time, artists since J.M.W. Turner, like Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, and Picasso, have approached the canvas with increasingly analytic practice. He describes their practices as “reductionist,” grappling with a complex visual process just as a scientist would by breaking it down into its components: color, line, value, scale.

This departure from the figural to the gestural, or abstract, naturally implicates the viewer, which is our concern in Evidence-Based Design for healthcare. Dr. Kandel points to fascinating neurological processes involved in visual processing of information, many keyed to evolutionary processes millions of years in the making. He calls most of this bottom-up processing.

For example, the brain devotes more computational power to seeing and recognizing faces than any other object, not only as faces, but as a particular person’s own face, and then what that face is conveying about that person’s inner thoughts or outward social expression.

Top-down processes are brought to bear when we behold an abstract work. We are asked to participate in make meaning of Rothko’s color fields, without obvious and immediate reference to a specific object or setting or figure. The beholder engages in the creative activity, what Kandel calls “active seeing.”

Whether “active seeing” is an appropriate aim for art in healthcare environments may just depend on context. Of course, handing a tired patient more cognitive exercise may not be the right choice. Some practitioners have eliminated abstraction from their art programs entirely for that reason.

But sometimes, wouldn’t a rewarding experience of “active seeing” be just solution to offer patient, families, and staff opportunities for “positive distraction”? As long as the space for that distraction is inviting and safe, and the invitation is open, perhaps we should entertain Dr. Kandel’s contention that the experience can be deeply rewarding, and meaningful.