See What Your Brain Does When You Look at Art

A new device translates museum-goers’ brainwaves into a simplified real-time visualization

A museum visitor wears the new headset, which collects brainwave data that is used to create real-time images visualizing their response to art. Art Fund / Hydar Dewachi

Examining art can inspire a rich variety of thoughts and emotions. Now, a new initiative will allow art lovers to see their brains’ response to the familiar beauty of a van Gogh or the mystery of an abstract work.

During a pilot of the project this month at London’s Courtauld Gallery, visitors donned a headset connected to an electroencephalogram (EEG) monitor. Then, a real-time visualization of their brainwave data appeared on screens, allowing them to see what the art sparked inside their minds.

Art Fund, a United Kingdom-based charity, commissioned the project as part of its efforts to encourage the public to visit museums. The group’s research has found that while 95 percent of U.K. adults agree visiting museums and galleries is beneficial, 40 percent visit less than once a year, according to a statement from the organization. The new headsets will be available at select museums in the U.K. next year.

“This is a way of just showing us exactly what happens in our brains and how exciting it is to actually be back in a museum context, back in a gallery, seeing real art, having that experience,” says Jenny Waldman, Art Fund’s director, to Jayson Mansaray of Sky News. “What we’re trying to do with this experiment is show how fantastic the museum experience is and encourage people back.”

The technology works via a small wireless headset, which presses sensors against the wearer’s forehead and loops behind the ears, writes Artnet’s Jo Lawson-Tancred, who recently tested the device. The technology is designed to isolate a specific frequency of brainwave activity called the beta range, which helps make the data legible to those without a neuroscience background.

“There are other frequencies that are more to do with unconscious thinking, but beta waves are about your conscious thought,” Will MacNeil, creative director of The Mill design agency, which produced the visualization alongside interactive artist Seph Li, tells Artnet.

A visualization of the brainwaves on a screen while a viewer looks at a painting by van Gogh Art Fund / Hydar Dewachi

The images on the screen reflect the viewer’s experience. For example, when users are especially alert, “the ribbons become wider,” says MacNeil in the statement. If they try to interpret something confusing, “the ribbons start to spiral and weave.” Bright highlights signal that they are seeing something familiar.

The small headsets are less accurate than readings taken with advanced equipment in a lab, as Ahmad Beyh, a neuroscientist at Rutgers University, tells Artnet. The project isn’t meant to demonstrate scientific rigor; instead, it’s meant to show that art can affect viewers in meaningful ways.

“We know that when a person views something that they find beautiful, for example, a face or an abstract art painting, their brain’s pleasure centers light up and its visual sensory center is engaged more intensely,” says Beyh in the statement. “Studies suggest that this is accompanied by a release of dopamine, which is also known as the feel-good neurotransmitter.”

Art activates the same reward and pleasure centers that some depression treatments target, as Beyh tells Sky News. While more research is needed, he thinks viewing art could have long-term health benefits.

In the meantime, he tells Artnet, the new headset is “a brilliant way to bridge the scientific world and the art world, and see how art is engaging the brain.”

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