Why should you visit museums?

It is unreal how fast time flies when you are having a great time! I can not believe that two weeks have already passed of my five week study abroad adventure in Paris. Despite the challenging workload of the courses I am taking, I can tell you that I have enjoyed my time here ever since day one (except for the part of experiencing the “jet lag” phenomenon for the first time). This is because I am surrounded by amazing people and I have been able to site-see some parts of Paris with them. I enjoy visiting new places and experiencing their cultural and aesthetic characteristics. I think that one of the best ways to explore the culture and beauty of France during my short time abroad is by visiting as many historical buildings and galleries as possible.

Within the last two weeks, I was able to visit the following places: Eiffel Towel, Musée du Louvre, Musée de l’Orangerie, Arc du Triumphe, Musée Dupuytren, Musée de l’Histoire de la Médecine, and the Château de Versailles (Yes, the very touristy ones are important too!). I have previously visited some museums and historical sites back home, yet it was until this past Sunday, while walking through the beautiful gardens of the Chateau de Versailles, that I began to ask myself about the neuroscience behind art perception and appreciation.

Gardens of Versailles

At the Gardens of Versailles


Arc de Triumphe

Exploring the city after class (Left to right: Nicole, Sasha, me, and Danielle). Photo credits: Celia Greenlaw



That same day, after I arrived back to my room in Cité Universitaire, I searched for studies that would help me to understand if the brain perceives aesthetic objects differently. Unfortunately, I was able to find two research articles that are interesting and that provide insights about the biological foundations of art appreciation. So hopefully by the time you complete reading this post, you will understand about the effect(s) of art perception and appreciation in our behavior.

Let me begin by telling you about the study of Brieber et al.( 2014), that tested the effect of context (location) on the experience of art and the time spent viewing the art. In this study, two groups of participants (44 students between the ages of 18 and 31, with normal or corrected vision and no formal training in art/art history) were randomly divided into two groups: the museum group and the laboratory group. These groups represented the context in which the participants viewed an art exhibition: The museum group viewed original artworks in the museum and the laboratory group viewed digital reproductions of the same artworks on a screen in a laboratory. The viewing time of the participants was recorded using a mobile eye-tracking device. In addition, the participants were allowed to freely view the exhibition and were also given a map of the respective exhibition. Finally, after the participants completed the viewing of the exhibition, they were asked to rate each of the artworks found in it on the following criteria: liking, interest, understanding, and ambiguity.

To make things short, after the data were statistically analyzed, the researchers found a significant difference among the participants in the museum group. The participants in this group viewed the artworks for a longer time and that they also rated them higher in both liking and interest, contrary to the laboratory group. Based on these results, the study was concluded with the notion that art museums (the context) help to foster a more focused and enduring experience of art and that such context can also modulate the relationship between the general experience of the action and a particular behavioral response.

Although this study was interesting and presented a way to account for the context of the presentation of art, I think that the data that were obtained are not sufficient to help me understand how seeing the Mona Lisa at the Musée du Louvre is different, in brain activity, than when looking at it on the internet. Mona Lisa at Musée du Louvre

Selfie with the Mona Lisa at Musée du Louvre

Some limitations of the results of this study is that they have the potential to be biased  based on art preferences of the participants. In addition, since the data do not provide convincing evidence of a clear association between context and the perception of art, multiple interpretations and explanations can be derived about the validity of the results. As a neuroscience student, I think that the increase in ratings and satisfaction,  for example, might not simply be due to the context. Maybe the release of the dopamine neurotransmitter in the presence of a novel stimulus is causing the increase in ratings since an increase in dopamine release is associated with the increase of experience of reward, the improvement of perception and action, and an increase in motivation (Krebs et al., 2011).

Personally, I would like to see a follow up experiment of a modified version of this study where not only the context of the visual presentation is taken into account, but also sensory integration or the type of art that is presented. Recording the neural activity of the participants through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), such as in the study of brain activation during the presentation of paintings and photographic analogs (Mizokami et al., 2014)  could also be used to reduce response bias visualize the regions involved.

So by looking at other articles that studied the role of the brain in art appreciation in more detail, I was able to obtain a more solid understanding about how it that we perceive an appreciate beauty in art through the study by Cattaneo et al. (2014). In this study, twenty volunteer participants (right handed , with normal-to-corrected vision, an average age of 22 and no previous training or special interest in art) were administered a short test prior to the experimental trial to indicate about their preference of representational (with objects) vs. abstract (no objects) paintings. On test day, the participants were seated in front of a 17″ PC screen and asked to perform a computerized trial that consisted of two rating tasks: 1) To indicate, as fast as possible, whether they liked the painting or not by  pressing with their right index finger the left key for “yes” and with the right middle finger the right key for “no”. Immediately after a response, a white screen with a number scale of  “1 2 3 4 5 6 7” was presented at the bottom of the screen. 2) The participants were then asked to use the keyboard to select the number of the scale that corresponded to their appreciation level of the shown image (1= “I do not like it at all”, 7= “I like it very much”).

The stimuli (the paintings) presented consisted of two sets with 36 representational and 36 abstract images. The first set was presented three consecutive times and after a short break, the second set was presented with the order of stimulated sites of the first set trials being reversed. During this time, three 10 Hz transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) pulses, which cause the depolarization of cell membranes and initiation of action potentials, were delivered to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and to the right posterior parietal cortex (PPC) after 100 ms from the presentation of each painting. Fig. 1 of the study (shown below) is helpful to understand these steps.



Picture of where the DLPC and PPC are located

Picture of where the DLPC and PPC are located

To summarize the findings of this study, the researches of this study concluded that TMS over the fronto-parietal (DLPC and PPC) network significantly affected art appreciation and that its effects depended on the art category and “from the beginning” preference of the participants. These findings are important since some of the areas involved in art appreciation were observed.

Since these two studies helped me to learn that visiting museums has been shown to be more rewarding and meaningful and that some specific brain areas are involved in art appreciation, I will continue to visit as many as I can during the remaining time I have in Paris. From now on, my excuse to go out and explore the city’s historical buildings and galleries will be with the idea of activating my front-parietal network by letting my brain appreciate the beauty of the arts I encounter.


-Maria Vazquez


Cattaneo, Zaira, Carlotta Lega, Chiara Gardelli, Lotfi B. Merabet, Camilo J. Cela-Conde, and Marcos Nadal. “The Role of Prefrontal and Parietal Cortices in Esthetic Appreciation of Representational and Abstract Art: A TMS Study.” NeuroImage 99 (2014): 443-50.

Brieber D, Nadal M, Leder H, Rosenberg R (2014) Art in Time and Space: Context Modulates the Relation between Art Experience and Viewing Time. PLoS ONE 9(6): e99019. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099019

Krebs RM, Heipertz D, Schuetze H, Duzel E. Novelty increases the mesolimbic functional connectivity of the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA) during reward anticipation: Evidence from high-resolution fMRI. Neuroimage. 2011. Sep 15;58(2):647-55. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.06.038. Epub 2011 Jun 24.PubMed PMID: 21723396.


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