The Science Behind Abstract Art

Abstract Wall Painting

Since the beginning of time, people have held a fascination with the unknown. Research has shown that looking at art stimulates the brain and gives us great pleasure. Studies have shown that when we look at abstract works of art, our brain starts imaging the way the artist used their brushstrokes to create their masterpiece. Unlike paintings that depict concrete things or have a visible symmetry and look, the meaning and beauty of an abstract painting lie within each stroke. 

Throughout history, artists have used human psychology to guide their work. The infamous Pollock used drip techniques in his artwork to show what paintings look like when the unconscious is not hindered. 

How we look at art may vary among individuals, but there are certain reactions of the mind to abstract art that are common across most viewers. 

Associating Color with Sound

A minute percentage of the world’s population experiences something known as synesthesia: a condition where colors are associated with certain sounds. What makes this condition so unique is that it is experienced very differently by each individual. Every person who can hear color will hear something else for the same shade, which has made this a point of confusion for many researchers who are unable to generalize research findings. The sound people hear from the colors in abstract art affects their perception of the piece. 

The Brain’s Approach to Processing Abstract Art

There are many different ways that we can look at a work of art, but there are some scientifically deduced methods, such as:

The Bottom up Approach

The bottom up approach works on the concept that visual data (the artwork) is sent to the visual cortex in the brain and is processed based directly off of what we see. This usually happens for novel experiences. When it comes to abstract art, the interpretation is similar to the way many psychological tests are conducted. Think of the infamous inkblot test, which is used by psychologists worldwide to help their patients bring out what’s hidden in their subconscious. Your interpretation of a new abstract painting may happen in the same way. 

The Top down Approach

Unlike the bottom up approach, which works better for new experiences, the top down approach is the exact opposite. In this approach, our perception is affected by our past experiences and usage of the five senses. This may take shape in the form of comparing different paintings by the same artist, or different paintings by the same style artists like abstract expressionists. 

Our past experiences influence our perception of art to the point where we will only notice the close details if that is what we’re used to, or we’ll form an opinion from a general glance. The situation can be likened to reading a passage of text and ignoring a minor typo (such as thier instead of their) because our brain is wired to fit those letters into the right spelling. 

Peak Shift

Historically, it has been found that the human mind is more attracted to the distortions of ordinary stimuli. In basic terms, this can be likened to the preference for animated graphics and caricatures over those that emulate real life. For people, these bizarre versions of the real world are easier and more enjoyable to grasp. 

Playing with Color Contrast

For the brain, it is easy to accept different colors when they are starkly different. For instance, the brain can very easily pick up the colors of the American flag: red, blue, and white. However, sometimes, abstract art plays with the brain’s ability to detect color. Abstract art may either use such stark colors, or it may use multiple shades of the same color. Since the transition between these shades is not instantly apparent, it plays with the brain and creates a sense of fascination in the viewer. Seeing something ambiguous makes the brain want to go back for more to try and find some logic to it. An example of the brain’s love of ambiguity comes from a painting that isn’t abstract, but has definitely confounded millions throughout history- many viewers are still unsure of whether the Mona Lisa’s smile curves upwards or not. 

Blank Spaces & an Element of Mystery

Many abstract paintings have large open spaces that may be painted white or expose the canvas underneath. These blank spaces trigger the brain into “problem-solving” mode. Like someone trying to fit together the pieces of a puzzle, the brain tries to put together the missing “pieces” of the painting. In real-time, this translates into a person spending more time looking at the artwork in front of them. Of course, the abstract artwork needs to be fascinating enough for the mind to want to figure it out. 

The Brain’s Perception of Patterns

The human mind views patterns that exist in the real world in the paintings the viewer sees. When focusing on one spot, the mind may start seeing fractal patterns: patterns that keep evolving into themselves in an infinite cycle. While they do stimulate the brain, sometimes, the stimulus can be too strong. Abstraction is used in paintings to add a break to this cycle of patterns and keep the viewer’s mind relaxed so that they find the piece that they are viewing more calming and appealing.  

Endnote

Neuroaesthetics is an entire field of study where scientists try to understand the way looking at art stimulates the brain, particularly abstract pieces that are out of the ordinary. Many researchers have conducted studies where subjects underwent brain scans to see which parts of the brain light up when they viewed artwork and how these differed across their different subjects. 

Many people who choose to display abstract art in their homes often place it in an open, central position out of respect for the piece. This also allows passersby to spend some time, undisturbed, trying to interpret and view the piece in their own, unique way. 


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