We need to spend more time thinking about the art in our world.
Art is exceedingly difficult to define, but let’s describe it as paintings, photographs, sculptures, etc., that we choose to surround ourselves with because we like to look at them—and our “art” can be full-size or reduced to fit on a postcard, real or a reproduction. For our current discussion, we’ll ignore audio art (like music), kinesthetic art (such as dance), literature and drama, etc. We’ll be focusing on the sorts of stuff you might encounter on display in the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art or your local art gallery.
The reason that most of us “art up” our world is because doing so gives us a big psychological push toward well-being, at least when we choose the art.
Choosing art for our walls and tabletops is a way we can exercise some control over our lives, and just doing that gives us a more positive mindset to meet the world and helps our brains work more effectively, regularly improving our cognitive performance.
Via art, we can also signal to anyone who visits our home or wanders by our workspace (if we still even go to an office) what we value about ourselves, which might be that we’re good at our jobs, or a member of a particular group, or something else entirely. When we send these signals we remind ourselves who we really are and give others clues not only about what drives us forward but also how to interact with us—and not just what to talk about. For example, if the art seen indicates that we live our lives in a relatively formal way, people know to stand a little further from us when we talk; people who are more formal prefer slightly larger persona space zones.
Art can also help us decompress and revitalize, particularly if it shows nature scenes.
Think about it: the vacation photographs that seem to get the most “oohs” and “aahs” are always shots of nature. Whether they’re landscape or portrait, tropical or deciduous, with or without wildlife doesn’t seem to matter much. We like looking at images of nature, whether we’ve photographed a scene ourselves or not.
Our fondness for nature scenes makes sense, particularly if the sites shown look like they’re complete with the resources that would have been handy, survival-wise, for our species when it was young. It seems that all of the sensory processing circuits in our brains have developed to find it desirable to encounter the sorts of conditions that would have signaled to us that food was likely nearby and escape from predators that found us tasty would be possible. These responses are so fundamental that just looking at the sorts of spaces where we would have thrived eons ago gives us a psychological boost.
When we see nature scenes, either in photographs or in paintings, our stress levels fall, our mental performance improves, and we are mentally refreshed. Adding a painting of nature above the mantel in the living room is a good idea.
The sorts of nature scenes that are best for our mental state are images that seem ready for us to step into. Our brains do realize we won’t be able to merge into an image, even though that seems to happen all the time in movies (for example, have you seen the scene when Mary Poppins steps into the chalk drawing?) but we like to think we could. A relatively clear foreground, without a blocking hedge or fence, for example, is step-into-it-able.
The “best” nature images feature clumps of trees that look ready for climbing spread across a meadow. It’s fine if there’s some sign of human life, say a cottage in the distance or a gently curving road, but the weather should be stellar and the terrain in relatively good shape (not recently decimated by a wildfire, for example). Bonus mental welfare points accrue if there is a gently burbling brook or peaceful lake in view. Signs of nearby predators—say lions or tigers or bears—are undesirable, as are jungle-like plant growth that would make it difficult for humans to see trouble approaching. Research also shows that seeing close-up images of flowers, ones where the blooms fill the frame, but stems aren’t obvious, can speed our return to normal after we’ve been stressed.
Images of nature can help us live our best lives and avoid being debilitated by everyday stressors. Nature images will work for you, even if you don’t have much time (vacation or otherwise) to work on them. Fancy printing and frames aren’t required for positive returns on effort invested.
We’re more positive about the art we create ourselves than we are about art created by others, so try, at least, to be objective about which of your own pieces you choose to display—and no one expects you to be at all rational about your kids’ art, so don’t even think about assessing it.
Consciously use art to brighten your life and to achieve your personal and professional objectives.
For more information on this topic, take a look at
Denis Dutton. 2009. The Art Instinct, Bloomsbury Press)
Anjan Chatterjee. 2013. The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art. Oxford University Press: New York.
Thomas Herzog, Colleen Maguire, and Mary Nebel. 2003. “Assessing the Restorative Components of Environments.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 23, pp. 159-170.
Annukka Lindell and Julia Mueller. 2011. “Can Science Account for Taste? Psychological Insights Into Art Appreciation.” Journal of Cognitive Psychology, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 453-475.