This Is Your Brain On Art

Kylie Holloway - Tour Guide

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There is a disease that affects many museum-goers.

It’s known to esteemed scholars (aka, Museum Hack guides) as “gallery fatigue.” The symptoms of “gallery fatigue” are fairly standard:

  • sore feet after walking and standing for hours,
  • blurred vision as paintings all start to look the same,
  • and a distinct humming in your ears as your guide’s voice begins to sound monotonous.

Thankfully, we’ve found the cure for gallery fatigue at Museum Hack: art appreciation, a coded phrase you’ll recognize if you’ve been on one of our tours.

But gallery fatigue, or rather, the mental discomfort that estranges museum-goers from the art they’ve come to see, is a real problem that museum professionals have been attempting to tackle for decades. The real cure may come from a surprising source: neuroscience.

Last May, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, MA became the first art museum to hire a resident neuroscientist, Dr. Tedi Asher. According to museum director Dan Monroe, the decision to appoint Dr. Asher came from a desire to not only display art, but to design art experiences that are perhaps more meaningful to visitors than staring blankly at paintings on a wall. We had the chance to chat with Dr. Asher and pick her brain about her research, its implementation at the PEM, and how it might benefit other organizations that curate museum experiences (like us!).

Dr. Tedi Asher. Courtesy of Bob Packert, PEM.

Museums and Neuroscience: Why The Combo Works

At first glance, museology and neuroscience might seem like two of the least likely disciplines to overlap. But the desire to use science to understand why and how art affects us is far from new. The question of what triggers our response to beauty and art goes all the way back to Plato.

The specific merging of art and neuroscience can be dated back to the work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Dr. Cajal was a neuroscientist and talented sketch artist who discovered the ways neurons communicate with one another at the end of the 19th century (his drawings are part of a traveling exhibition, currently on their way to the MIT Museum in Cambridge, MA. Do yourself a favor and check it out).

The decision to merge the two disciplines at the PEM was largely the brainchild of Director Dan Monroe, who is a damn rockstar in our humble opinion. The goal of museums, in Monroe’s view, is not to teach people everything they should know about art history, but instead to expand their horizons, to discover what strikes them.

In case you missed the big ass banner on our website, our company slogan is “Museums are F***ing Awesome,” so we, too, prefer to highlight amazing, true stories over listing historical facts as a way to get our guests engaged. So when Dr. Asher told us this anecdote, we remained very professional externally, but internally were screaming, “YAAAAAS.”

According to a 2015 NEA survey, the percentage of adults who attended museums annually fell from 2002 to 2012 by 5.5%, roughly 58 million people. Director Monroe heard this figure and decided it was about dang time to innovate. “If one’s committed to creating more meaningful and impactful art experiences,” Monroe stated in a 2017 interview, “it seems a good idea to have a better idea about how our brains work.” Dr. Asher’s appointment is part of an initiative at the PEM, funded by the Barr Foundation, to use our growing wealth of knowledge about the brain to expand upon connections between art and neuroscience. Here are some of Dr. Asher’s insights from her first year at the PEM.

Why Does That Dali Make Me Cry and Why Does That Picasso Make Me Laugh?

Dr. Asher described her research as broken up into three phases. In phase one, she researches neuroscience literature, identifies relevant findings, and develops hypotheses (some of which we’ll discuss later). Phase two consists of implementing those hypotheses, and phase three is all about evaluation. One of the coolest-sounding parts of Dr. Asher’s job is that she gets to play with new evaluative techniques, like biometrics.  In a recent experiment, Asher attached glasses that track eye movements and GSR monitors to guests as they walked through an exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings.

Side note: we looked up wtf a GRS monitor does, and it tracks how much your skin produces sweat. Your sweat glands are governed by your sympathetic nervous system (that thing that activates your fight-or-flight response) so how much you sweat is viewed as a metric of emotional arousal by scientists. (Also, your Tinder date.)

Dr. Asher and co. noticed that one guest had the highest GSR in the second gallery. After the experiment, they interviewed the guest about his life history and he revealed he was raised in New Mexico. The work in the second gallery featured paintings from O’Keefe’s time in that state, which explains why the guest had a strong emotional reaction to it.

There is a lot that Dr. Asher wants to unpack from that experiment, particularly surrounding the conscious vs. unconscious emotional experience. However, we are fascinated by the use of memory to trigger emotional responses to art. This isn’t something that museums can do on a large scale obviously; however, the research is an exciting potential discovery for, say, a boutique guide agency focused on creating unique, sometimes customized, museum experiences.

About Those Wall Texts

If you’ve ever been to a Museum Hack Bootcamp (and if you’re a museum professional, you should totally go to one), you know we love finding new and creative ways to get museum-goers engaging with the art. Museums have historically relied on one method of engagement: the wall text. These little blurbs tend to highlight things like brush strokes and depth, or note that said watchmaker was also a respected diplomat in the 1850s. Basically, they can be a bit dry. PEM Director Monroe puts it a little more diplomatically, noting that “didactic written labels don’t stimulate people to interrogate works of art on their own.”

Dr. Asher is exploring new ways of structuring wall texts in her most recent experiment. Her hypothesis is simple: viewing behavior (and our response to the work) is affected by assigning viewers a goal when looking at a work of art. She’s been observing changes in viewing behavior when guests are given different types of goals. For example, she’s asked guests to look for the circle in a painting or to assess their emotional response when looking at something.

This study helped Dr. Asher formulate her second hypothesis: that the best way to elicit meaningful engagement with the art is to ask the subject to make an aesthetic judgment about the piece. Do you like Dali’s elephant? Does that picture of medieval baby Jesus creep you out?

These hypotheses give us clues as to what might be the most successful way to structure wall texts in the future. The content doesn’t necessarily need to be changed, but the form matters. Dr. Asher’s studies might provide museum professionals with new mechanisms to hook visitors. Maybe we start asking a guest to notice the brush strokes and depth and relate the watchmaker’s experience to their own.  

During our discussion, Dr. Asher cited a study by Ed Vessel, a neuroscientist who has collaborated with the Rubin Museum and spent time at NYU’s Art Lab. In this study, Dr. Vessel asked students to rate their emotional responses to art while they were undergoing an MRI scan. His team noted that when participants were making this judgement, their Default Mode Network (DMN) was more active. The DMN is a series of connected regions in your brain that tend to be at rest when you’re engaged with external goals. However, the DMN is more active when you’re doing things like reflecting on your day when you’re on the train, daydreaming, and thinking about your emotional response to art. So when you’re on a tour and we tell you not to look at the wall texts, but instead ask you, “How do you like this Monet? He didn’t like it either,” we’re not just talking about art. We’re helping you stimulate your sense of self.

You’re welcome.

You Mean I Can Smell the Art?

Even prior to Dr. Asher’s involvement with the PEM, the museum was known for staging exhibitions that defied convention. In 2016, the PEM staged an exhibition entitled “Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age,” which centered on the influence of newly opened trade routes with Asia on Dutch art in the 17th century. Before guests entered the exhibition, they were greeted with boxes of spices that would have been commonly traded during the era contemporary with the paintings. Dr. Asher explained that the idea of staging unexpected “entry experiences” helps to stimulate the brain prior to engaging with the art. Dr. Bevil Conway, a panelist on the PEM neuroscience initiative and collaborator on this exhibition, has said that the brain responds to “change, diversity, and motion.” Therefore, offering something that stimulates the senses unexpectedly (like staging a dance piece before a Rodin exhibit as the PEM did in 2016) elicits a stronger response from the brain.

The stimulation of multiple senses is also key. As Dr. Asher explained it, the senses are five pathways for information to get to your brain. When your eyes, ears, or nose pick up information, they send it to the thalamus which then shoots it out to the other parts of your brain that will process that info. So when you experience multiple senses at once, those signals are merged on their way to the thalamus, creating a stronger message for your neurons to respond to. Is your mind blown yet? Well try sipping some nice Merlot next time you look at a Toulouse Lautrec painting and tell us your neurons aren’t responding.

Your Brain on Paintings: Less is More

One marked element of a traditional gallery experience is having to look at about 15 different paintings on a wall at once. The salon-style method of hanging paintings is probably familiar if you’ve ever read an interior design magazine. Essentially, an expert (a curator, or

Bobby Berk from Queer Eye) meticulously chooses frames and arranges a thousand paintings on a wall to look like they’ve been casually thrown into the gallery or your stylish living room. This style finds its origins in the 1660s, when the salon was first hosted by the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. There was such a high demand for space that they would stack paintings from floor to ceiling in order to fit everyone in.

Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels, David Teniers the Younger, 1650

Art museums have kept this style in vogue for centuries, and for good reason. Major art museums often have room for only a fraction of the items in their larger collection. However, we can use a little of neuroscience knowledge to infer that salon style might not be the best viewing experience for your brain.

Your brain does a bunch of crazy weird/cool stuff, and one of those things is called neuron suppression. In layman’s terms (our preferred terms here at Museum Hack), if you put two objects in front of your eyeballs, some neurons will focus activity on object A and some will focus on object B. Those neurons will then suppress each other’s activity. If those neurons are from the same part of the brain, the representation of each object in the brain won’t be as robust as if you were looking at object A on its own. So if we take those findings and bring them into the museum world, they raise questions about how well we process art when we’re looking at five Picassos at once.

Dr. Asher did stress that the theory of neuron suppression’s relationship to salon-style hangings is an untested hypothesis, but testing it is on her to do list. We’re looking forward to hearing the results.

Holy F*cking Science! Art Appreciation Works

“Art Appreciation” is a key element of every Museum Hack Tour. It’s our very-sneaky-not-allowed-in-museums method of jolting our guests out of gallery fatigue, the aforementioned museum-goer’s disease. We can’t say exactly what it is (the museum guards will hunt us down) but all you have to know is that we spike your blood sugar.

When we ran art appreciation by Dr. Asher, she said, ”What you’re doing with the (art appreciation), I think, is genius.”

She cited the concept of ego depletion. This is the idea that self-control draws upon a limited amount of mental resources, so when you go to a place where you’re putting a lot of energy into behaving “correctly” or restrained, like an art museum, you make yourself mentally weaker.

Dr. Asher took this concept a step further, explaining that ego depletion can affect you physically. She cited Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, stating that if you saw a sad movie and put mental effort into not crying, then went to lift weights, you would find that you would feel physically weaker. This is bonkers to us, but would explain why you feel so dang tired after walking a museum for the day, when you might not feel as drained walking the same distance through a park.

Back to art appreciation. When a person consumes energy via glucose (that’s sugar, baby), they replenish their sources of mental and physical energy and are more prepared to complete their next tasks. Which is rad, because we give guests art appreciation about halfway through the tour, to launch their depleted asses back into gear, and give them the strength their tired brains and feet need to carry on listening to our dope stories about art.

It’s great to have a deeper understanding of the neuroscience behind art appreciation, but we’re still focused on the fact that Dr. Tedi Flippin’ Asher, the greatest neuroscience in Museum Hack’s world, called us geniuses. We’re gonna go home and call our moms. We’ve officially made it.

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