Brains on art

Sowmyasri Muthupandi
4 min readFeb 7, 2021
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Rothko to me is a spiritual experience. I was not an artsy person when I visited Rothko Room for the first time in Phillips Collection, DC. Luckily it wasn’t a busy day and I got to spend a lot of time in the Rothko room by myself. At first glance, I was curious as to what the painting signified. My eyes grazed over the canvas, explored every color, its tints and tones. For a minute I looked at the entire painting, the next moment I started inspecting one of the colors. I worked through the zones where the two colors blended and I also studied how shades of the same color varied. I lost myself in the process and it was zen! It was like staring into the night sky or having a couple of minutes of peace when you come upon mindfulness using Headspace.

I wanted to share the moment, I asked my friend to check it out but she looked at it and said “it’s nice” hoping not to disappoint me. Not a lot of people I know share my enthusiasm for abstract art (15/17 to be precise). One was shocked by the fact that a Rothko was sold for millions. Some discount it by saying “even a child can paint it”. While others believe it is definitely worth the hype but they don’t have the appreciation for it. Hoping to get some company to nerd out about paintings, I took on this mission of converting my friends into art buffs. I noticed when I show abstract art to my friends, they are overcome by an urge to impose a rational explanation. They approach it like a puzzle. They try to find patterns and hidden objects. They get so immersed in the process of understanding it that they fail to experience it.

Based on my observations, I embraced a new approach to proselytize my friends. I wanted to show them how I felt when I saw abstract art so that they can understand how it works. Andreas Wannerstedt is a 3D artist who creates looping animations that have hypnotic and meditative effects on a wide range of audiences. Occasionally I get goosebumps and tickles in my stomach (like when in a giant wheel or roller coaster) but almost entirely I find Wannerstedt’s works very soothing. I leveraged these “oddly satisfying” videos to explain the traits of abstract art as it is easier for people to connect with them and comprehend what kind of emotions abstract art can channel. However, I have only succeeded in making them agree abstract art can be rewarding. I still haven’t cracked the formula on how to help people perceive these feelings by looking at one.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

As I was working on my hypothesis that one should stop figuring abstract art to actually perceive it, I eventually ran into Dr. Eric Kandel’s book Reductionism in Art and Brain Science which reinforced my assertions. In his book, Dr. Kandel explains that our brain processes information in two ways — Bottoms-up and Top-down. The bottoms-up approach employs built-in mechanisms in the brain which allows us to make effective guesses with incomplete information. It salvages the visual processing system that has evolved over millions of years. For instance, it kicks in when we process realistic art; the brain constructs a three-dimensional object from information like lines, edges, colors, and shading, processed by the eyes.

On the other hand, top-down processes are built on acquired information and exercise mental functions such as attention, imagery, expectations and learned visual associations. When we are faced with ambiguities, say look at an abstract painting, we make guesses based on our experience about what the image means. During this process the brain constructs and tests different hypotheses inspired by our entire life experience: people we have met, environments we have been in, and other artworks we have encountered. Hence, the perception of the painting emerges from a personal psychological context, thereby conveying different meanings and triggering diverse emotions in different people.

The realistic artists adopt form, line, color and light to aid our brain grasp the representations and identify them with objects in the physical world. On the contrary, abstract artists strip off all the excessive details and focus on one (or more) of the core elements in their art. These unconventional representations not only challenge the bottoms-up mechanism, but they also invalidate its utility in given the use-case. One has to exercise top-down processing to interpret abstract forms. Dr. Kandel suggests this as the primary reason why people dismiss or feel intimidated by abstract art.

If you do not fancy abstract art already, all I ask for is please give it another chance! Approach it like a song, when we listen to music we don’t really disassemble it into its notes and chords to understand and appreciate it. We immerse ourselves at the moment and connect with our emotions to savor it. Overcoming one’s frustration of not being able to figure what a painting represents is key to experiencing it. By enabling us to dissociate from reality and compose new creative responses, abstract art increases our tolerance to unfamiliar situations and allows us to look at the world from different perspectives. Visit a modern art museum when you get a chance and let your brain hurt in the right way!