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Has Monet Messed with Your Mind?

Friday 24th September 2010

Earlier this week a much talked about and anticipated retrospective of Claude Monet's work opened at the Grand Palais in Paris. The exhibition brings together works from every phase of his career as an artist, and has masterpieces-a-plenty, making it an unmissable show, especially if you haven't had the pleasure of allowing Monet to play tricks on your brain and mess with your emotions.
 
Yes, this week Gallereo has taken to a path of scientific enlightenment by reading New Scientist. Beyond quantum physics and discussions of time and space however, there was an interesting article on the arts and the way that artists have been messing with our brains for centuries. 
 
Our understanding of the way the brain works is still relatively limited, and it is only recently that we have started to understand they way that the brain deconstructs images. In the scientific field of neuroaesthetics, scientists have been looking at the way certain images and methods of painting or drawing help artists to plug into our subconscious mind, trigger neural conflicts and trick our minds into believing the impossible. 
 
In light of the blockbuster Monet exhibition, and the flocks of Impressionist fans who will make the trip to pay homage, the branch of the article, by Jessica Griggs, that asked "Why is Impressionist painting so popular?" struck a bit of a chord with us. 
 
The answer? Firstly, it would seem that we are drawn to Monets rough, and broken painterly style because it forces the brain to conjure up a more personal interpretation the work. If the work had been painted more like a photographic representation of the scene, the brain wouldn't have to fill in the gaps. By causing us to fill in the gaps, our experience becomes more visceral, with our brain applying memories and deep emotions to the work.
 
It is also thought that this particular style of painting speaks directly to the amygdala; the part of the brain that processes emotions. This part of the brain acts like "an early warning system, on the lookout for unfocused threats lurking in our peripheral vision, and tends to react more strongly to things we haven't yet picked up consciously." Research has shown that the amygdala reacts far more enthusiastically to things that it can't quite make out, giving the Impressionist style of painting a privileged level of access in the brain.
 
So there you have it, Impressionist works are so popular because our brains are a little bit wary of what they can't quite understand, and therefore we pay a lot more attention them, even if it is on a subconscious level.
 
You can read the full article by Jessica Griggs, and find out more about the neuroscientist in charge of the findings, Patrick Cavanagh, in the article "Six Ways that Artists Hack Your Brain"

Posted on September 24th 2010 on 09:30am
Labels: painting

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