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Emerging research suggests that paintings might be more than just pretty pictures: how we process what we see in paintings might also impact the way we process the world around us.

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This episode is sponsored by DataCamp.

Start building your data science and analytics skills by clicking the link in the description. [♪ INTRO]. Painting is one of our oldest art forms.

From animals on cave walls to the splatterings of modern artists, humans have been painting for tens of thousands of years. And it turns out the power of this medium goes beyond expressing ourselves or even appreciating beauty. Emerging research suggests that paintings can have a powerful effect on our brains.

The simple act of looking at a painting can actually make us see the world in a different way! It’s long been known that when we look at art we like, it makes us feel good. It activates reward regions in the brain and can even reduce stress levels.

But art isn’t just enjoyable. It changes how we perceive other things. For instance, research suggests that art impacts our emotions and therefore, in turn, can change how we think about ourselves and the world around us.

When we look at art, there's activation in a region called the anterior insula, which is involved in the conscious experience of emotions. Of course, the specific emotional reaction we have to a piece of art can vary. The context and background information we're given about it and our previous experiences with art can affect how we interpret a piece and the emotional reaction that results.

But whatever you feel, it impacts the way you think, because research shows that people actually view the world differently when they're experiencing strong emotions. For example, compared to people in a neutral mood, people in a happy mood tend to make more creative word associations and categorize items in a more open-minded way. Negative emotions can also impact how we process information.

For example, in one study, people who felt fearful tended to see the world as a riskier place, compared to people in an angry mood. In fact, sometimes negative reactions to art are the most impactful. Like, you might look at a painting and think, "That is not art!" When this happens, you may feel uncomfortable or even anxious, especially if the art challenges your ideas about the world or how you see yourself.

But research suggests that this kind of strong negative reaction can prompt us to change. If we sit with the discomfort, it can cause us to rethink our views— which in the end becomes a positive and even transformative experience. So, part of the power of art comes from the fact that it produces strong emotions— both positive and negative.

But that’s not the only way it can alter our mindset. Another way looking at art can impact us is by creating an experience where we feel immersed in what's happening. If you've ever found yourself completely engrossed in whatever you were doing, you’ve probably experienced what psychologists call a flow state.

During flow states, people become hyper focused, and their perception of the world around them changes.. They can lose track of time, so hours pass in what feels like minutes. They tend to be less self-aware: instead of thinking about what they're doing, they just do it.

And research suggests being captivated by a painting causes a similar kind of cognitive state. A study published in 2020 involving 341 survey participants found that some people report being intensely focused while looking at art — much like they’d feel in flow. But different types of art may differ in how they affect us.

Have you ever looked at an abstract painting and felt like you didn't really "get" it? Well, that might be the point. Abstract art can be hard to interpret, but that’s probably why it encourages us to see things differently.

Neuroscience research suggests that abstract art forces us to use different processing styles than the ones we typically use when viewing everyday objects or representational art. The way we literally examine the piece is different, for instance. And scans have revealed different patterns of brain activation.

More specifically, though, abstract art may promote a more abstract way of thinking. In a series of three research studies, over 1700 participants were asked to look at paintings. Some were realistic pictures, some were completely abstract, and others were in between.

Then they were asked about where or when the paintings should be displayed. These questions served as a way of measuring participants’ mindsets, since prior research has shown that people think about things that are far away in time or space differently than they think about things that are closer to them. Specifically, we think about things that are far away in a more abstract way; that is, we think more about the big picture and less about the little details.

Participants tended to say that the abstract art would be better suited to the far away gallery and a gallery display that would be happening a year later. In other words, it seemed that participants viewed the abstract art in a more abstract way. The researchers believed this was evidence that the art altered the participants’ cognitive state.

And that could mean looking at abstract art could help you open up your mind or get your creative juices flowing. Of course, representational paintings have their effects on you, too, like by influencing your emotions and grounding you in the here and now. So next time you're looking at a painting and you're not quite sure what to make of it, consider that it might be a feature, not a bug: it could be helping you see things in a whole new light.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! And to today’s sponsor, DataCamp. DataCamp thinks everyone can benefit from learning how to analyze and understand data.

So they offer more than 330 short, interactive courses so you can learn the skills you want at your own pace. Like, if you’ve been itching to learn how to analyze data with R, you could try out their Introduction to R course. Its expert instructor and hands-on exercises will have you coding in no time!

Unlimited access to their courses starts at just 25 dollars a month— plus you get unlimited assessment tests, so you know which courses to take. You can click the link in the description to learn more and even check out the first chapters of each course for free! [♪ OUTRO].