Neuroaesthetics—Art Therapy’s Other Name
Once upon a time when the field now known as art therapy was formally organizing itself, its pioneers debated about a proper name for the fledgling profession. “Art therapy” won, but “neuroaesthetics” was a contender. What is neuroaesthetics? It’s the study of the brain and how it is affected by looking at art and how it is affected by making art. Regardless of the population they served, art therapy pioneers recognized that something important was happening in people’s brains that affected the visual images they produced, and they also noticed that introducing changes in art media and methods resulted in changes in people’s art products—thus signifying that something had changed in their brains as well.
Unfortunately, brain science at the time wasn’t in a position to substantiate the neural basis of these observations. Freud had the same problem back in his day. But the observations of the pioneers formed the foundation of art therapy theory, and techniques arose from those theories. Art therapy and neuroaesthetics sort of went their separate ways, as far as professional fields go, but they remain tightly tied—especially since advances in neuroimaging have made it possible to reclaim their shared roots.
It used to be that neuroimaging could only tell us what happened when a person saw something s/he perceived as beautiful; the medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that’s believed to play a key role in integrating sensory experience with emotion and decision making, is activated and gives us that “wow” feeling. But now neuroscientists are beginning to take a peek into the brains of people when they are creating art—and this breakthrough in technology is good news for art therapy. Just as neuroimaging has redeemed Freud, it’s possible that neuroimaging may also raise art therapists to a new level of esteem.
Edward Vessel, PhD, Director of New York University’s ArtLab and assistant research scientist at NYU’s Center for Brain Imaging, is one such neuroscientist who is paving the way for art therapists as they seek to describe the work they do in a world that is suddenly very interested in brain-based assessment and treatment. I wonder if he has connected with NYU’s graduate art therapy program? At any rate, Dr. Vessel partnered with About.com to explain—in lay terms—neuroaesthetics and its relevance to a vast array of inquiries. “What is Neuroaesthetics?: Brain on Art” is a 2.5-minute introduction that’ll, well, get your brain on art and on art therapy’s other name.
With appreciation for the important work you do,
Megan September 2014