What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Love, Desire, and…. Art!

A case for funding art.

While art and artists are an integral and valued part of many cultures, in American culture, art is often devalued.  Art programs are cut from school budgets, art is often relegated to museums, and debates rage about whether or not public money should be spent to fund art (currently it is .004% of the national budget).  Recent research may help to quiet this debate a bit: researcher Professor Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist at the University College London, discovered that viewing art gives the same pleasure as falling in love.

In a series of pioneering brain-mapping experiments, Zeki scanned the brains of volunteers as they looked at 28 works of art, including works by Botticelli, Monet, and Constable.  He found that viewing art triggers a surge of the feel-good chemical dopamine, into the orbito-frontal cortex of the brain, resulting in feelings of intense pleasure.  Dopamine and the orbito-frontal cortex are known to be involved in desire, affection, pleasure, and romantic love.  They are also known to be involved in what makes illicit drug taking and certain activities (such as sex, stealing, gambling and eating) addictive.  The physiological pleasure reaction when viewing art, Zeki says "was immediate."

Previous research into the effect of viewing art supports this effect.  When patients in a hospital viewed art, it was found that their suffering was reduced and it led to a speedier recovery.  This type of research suggests that art could be used, in multiple contexts, to increase the welfare, mental health, and life satisfaction of the general public, young and old.  Of course, artists and art lovers could have told us that... but perhaps this research will help everyone else see the value in art too.



Bathing at La Grenouillere by Claude Monet


Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.


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