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The Science Behind Art: Why Does Art Play with our Emotions?

by Mesa Arts Center | June 17, 2015

I’m sure I’m not the only one to agree that the greatest pieces of art are the ones that evoke emotion. Whether I’m chuckling at a play, getting chills over a piece of music, or crying over The Notebookwith some Ben & Jerry’s, I began to wonder why these images, actors, and melodies leave such an emotional impact in our brains.
 
 
With a little research, I discovered that understanding our emotions has been a key factor in survival. For instance, if we feel threatened we run away to escape danger, while a full belly and shelter assures us we are safe and happy. Cognitive science proposes that art moves the viewer by evoking emotional cues we as humans have learned to understand over the millennium. Art exploits and explains our feelings, just as a juicy hamburger satisfies our tastes buds. We cry over movies because the oxytocin in our brain cannot tell the difference between a real person and an actor. Our brains so desperately want to empathize and connect!
 
 
 
Studies even show when using an MRI, the region of the brain that experiences emotions is activated when showing a pleasing piece of art. Even abstract paintings with the use of colors, symbolism, and brush strokes are distinguishable enough to make us feel something. Squiggly frantic lines can represent feelings of uneasiness, the color red can indicate an overwhelming sense of anger, or black can symbolize death and mystery among the viewers.
 

 

 
 
Cognitive science also explains how music evokes listeners because we associate the sounds with human movement. When listening to a melancholy Sarah McLachlan tune, maybe you’ll imagine a lost puppy in the rain. Or in contrast, if you’re listening to some fast paced jazz, you could envision a 1920’s dance party.
 
 
While art comes in various forms, each piece helps us connect with ourselves and the artists even thousands of years apart. So next time you’re getting teary eyed over Ryan Gosling on the big screen, it’s time to blame your ancestors and oxytocin for eating that pint ice cream.

 

 
By Colette Zaborniak

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