This is your Brain on Art

In Jill Suttie’s review of Elaine Fox’s new book, “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain,” on the Greater Good Science Center blog (July 30, 2012), she shares some fascinating insights for optimism and aesthetic experiences.

I often wonder, in the course of my Irrational Exuberance projects, whether objects attract or repel viewers, how, and why. How does presenting art about happiness and pleasure impact viewers? Suttie and Fox might lend a clue:

if optimists and pessimists are exposed to pleasurable stimuli, like a picture of a beautiful sunset or a box of chocolates, both will experience good feelings in the moment; but optimists can better sustain those feelings longer, because of asymmetric brain activity in which the left side is more active than the right.

Further, I’d suspected that optimism and pessimism might be related to the trust or skepticism that viewer enact when they focus their attention on challenging contemporary works that don’t look like art.

This difference in brain activity may help explain why optimists are more likely to take risks in approaching potentially rewarding experiences while pessimists, who have greater activity in the right side of the brain, tend to be more cautious.

Researchers have also found that people who are anxious or depressed—who also tend to be more pessimistic—have less connection between the prefrontal cortex of the brain (associated with cognitive activity) and the amygdala (associated with a feeling of fear). This means that pessimists are less able to control their fear response with thoughts, making them susceptible to emotional trauma from non-threatening situations and to difficulty recovering from setbacks in their lives.

What an insightful review and promising book. I’ve been feeling cautious and anxious—yes, pessimistic—lately, so this sounds like the perfect reading to add to the mix of references this summer.


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