This is your brain on art: A neuroscientist’s lessons on why abstract art makes our brains hurt so good


Ernst Gombrich made waves when he dipped into optics in his book, “Art and Illusion.” Freud offered a new analysis of Leonardo. The Copiale cipher, an encoded, illuminated manuscript, was solved by Kevin Knight, a computer scientist and linguist. It takes an outsider to start a revolution. So it is not entirely surprising that a neuroscientist would open this art historian’s eyes, but my mind is officially blown. I feel like a veil has been pulled aside, and for that I am grateful.


Ask your average person walking down the street what sort of art they find more intimidating, or like less, or don’t know what to make of, and they’ll point to abstract or minimalist art. Show them traditional, formal, naturalistic art, like Bellini’s “Sacred Allegory,” art which draws from traditional core Western texts (the Bible, apocrypha, mythology) alongside a Mark Rothko or a Jackson Pollock or a Kazimir Malevich, and they’ll retreat into the Bellini, even though it is one of the most puzzling unsolved mysteries of the art world, a riddle of a picture for which not one reasonable solution has ever been put forward. The Pollock, on the other hand, is just a tangle of dripped paint, the Rothko just a color with a bar of another color on top of it, the Malevich is all white.


Kandel’s work explains this in a simple way.


In abstract painting, elements are included not as visual reproductions of objects, but as references or clues to how we conceptualize objects. In describing the world they see, abstract artists not only dismantle many of the building blocks of bottom-up visual processing by eliminating perspective and holistic depiction, they also nullify some of the premises on which bottom-up processing is based. We scan an abstract painting for links between line segments, for recognizable contours and objects, but in the most fragmented works, such as those by Rothko, our efforts are thwarted.

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