When we experience art, we feel connected to something larger. Why?
If you think about it, having a great time at the theater defies logic in many ways. We’re surrounded by strangers, bombarded with unusual images and often faced with a wordless language of symbols. Yet, on a good night, we generally laugh more, cry more and enjoy ourselves more at a live performance than when we’re watching TV at home. We may even lose ourselves and feel connected to something larger. How does this happen?
Some of the answers to art’s mysteries can be found in the realm of science. Art is considered the domain of the heart, but its transporting effects start in the brain, where intricate systems perceive and interpret it with dazzling speed. Using brain-imaging and other tools of neuroscience, the new field of neuroaesthetics is probing the relationship between art and the brain.
We love to be entertained in a crowd
Social connection is one of the strengths of our species — it’s how we learn from others by imitation. We’re keenly attuned to the emotions and actions of people around us, because our brains are designed for this.
If, for example, you’ve ever gone to an experimental performance-art piece where there’s hardly anyone in the audience but you, and you’ve felt a little exposed and awkward, this is why. We crave social connection. And the cues we get from those around us help our brains make sense of our surroundings. This starts from the moment we walk into a crowd.
In this video, we explain how being in an audience for a live performance triggers your brain.
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An audience offers a rich social and sensory environment that engages several parts of the brain. The social brain network, which includes the temporoparietal junction and the medial prefrontal cortex is involved in decoding facial expressions. It’s also used in social perception, like sensing that the person next to us is getting restless.
The mirror neuron system, which contains cells that represent actions is activated when we detect the movements and emotions of other people. This system allows us to coordinate our behavior with those around us, to settle as the lights dim and applaud when others do.
It helps us to perceive strong emotions and spread them. When we feel that others around us are emotionally moved, when they're saddened, startled or delighted, our own emotions can become amplified, and sensed by the people next to us.
Social connection is a key function of our brains
Social connection is a key function of our brains. It helps us make sense of human behavior, a large part of which is evaluating movement and emotion within us and around us. Our brains like to share emotions with others. This is just one reason that seeing a live performance — a concert, play, opera, etc. — is a neural rush. With our brain’s capacity for emotion and empathy, even in the wordless art of dance we can begin to discover meaning — and a story.
We love a story
A narrative conveys information from one person’s brain to another’s in an effective way. We can learn vicariously through another’s experience from a safe space, without really being involved, which is why storytelling is so powerful.
We embark on a journey constructed by someone else, and, as we’ll see using the ballet “Swan Lake” as an example, we can empathize with what the characters go through without suffering the full force of fresh heartbreak.
In this video, we explain the plot of "Swan Lake."
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Footage from New York City Ballet’s September 2013 performance
"Swan Lake" tells a rather straightforward story of good vs. evil. It centers on Princess Odette, who has been put under a spell and must live a double life as a swan by day, woman by night, until she finds true love.
Prince Siegfried pledges himself to her, but he breaks his vow when a seductive villainess named Odile, also known as the black swan, fools him into betraying Odette.
The ballet ends in tragedy, and paradoxically, we like that. Research shows we tend to empathize more with characters in sad stories, and this may trigger hormones related to consoling and bonding.
Movement is irresistible
Major parts of the brain are mainly concerned with movement and sending motor commands to our muscles so that our bodies can function and we can move as we need to for survival.
The brain is highly stimulated by motion, body language, facial expression, gestures — all the motor perceptions that could affect survival and our success in social settings. These elements combine in the “Swan Lake” experience.
But we’re not only visually pulled to the movements of others. We feel them, in some small way, in our bodies.
When we watch a dancer spring across the stage, we may experience a little internal hippity-hop, too. According to the mirror system theory, our brain automatically mimics other people’s actions through its motor system. Let’s look at this through a series of moves, step by step.
When a dancer leaps or turns, we may empathetically feel a soaring sensation in response.
Many scientists believe we map other people’s actions into our own somatosensory system, which conveys sensation through the brain and body and helps us feel the emotions we perceive in others as if they were our own.
This allows us to take in a performer’s separate motions as one psychologically rich phrase.
A series of jumps can become an expression of yearning, because we automatically grasp the emotion attached to it.
The logic of art is a neural turn-on
Scientists studying various aspects of the arts believe certain components especially excite the brain. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran proposes several universal laws of art, or common patterns found in works of art across time and cultures. These principles powerfully activate our visual centers. In theory, they tap into evolved survival responses. Among those found in “Swan Lake” are:
Isolation: Singling out one element helps the brain block other sensory information and focus attention. This magnifies our emotional reaction, especially when the element is simplified to bare essentials. Odette is set apart from the rest of the cast, and she is recognizable as a swan with just a few gestures.
Contrast: The brain detects boundaries best when the edges are distinct, especially for objects next to each other. The black-and-white color scheme of “Swan Lake” sets the main characters apart.
Metaphor: Linking seemingly unrelated elements can heighten emotion and empathy. Our brains create meaning from Odette’s swan movements, and this deepens our perception of her pain.
Body shapes stir different emotions
Neuroscientist Julia F. Christensen and her colleagues at City, University of London, had subjects rate their emotions triggered by brief, silent videos of ballet dancers, with neither music nor facial expressions to influence them.
Soft, round and open body shapes elicited positive feelings, as in Odette’s whirling images of flight.
Edgy body shapes triggered negative emotions, such as the Black Swan’s spiky, asymmetrical moves. They’re impressive but also a little alarming.
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Music is the perfect partner
In another study, Christensen and her colleagues showed subjects silent dance clips and ones that included music. The subjects wore fingertip sweat-detection devices to monitor their raw emotional responses.
In Christensen’s study, when the music and dance matched — that is, sad music plus sad dancing — the subjects’ bodily responses and their reported feelings were stronger. If the music did not match, the responses were weaker.
Something happens when emotionally compatible music and dance combine, which is more powerful than a random combination.
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Putting it all together
When you go to the ballet — or any other show — you’re entering into a highly controlled experience. If everything works as planned, all the elements contribute to a kind of shared consciousness. In effect, your billions of brain cells are interacting with billions of other brain cells, busily making the microscopic connections that yoke together the brains of those present with an almost inescapable force.
This happens from the moment we automatically tune ourselves to the audience. Soon we’re watching a story unfold that connects us with the performers, vicariously feeling and making meaning out of the actions on stage, responding to the magnetism of specific visual cues, experiencing heightened emotions as music and movement entwine and even bonding with those around us. It’s just as the artists — choreographers, directors, playwrights, composers, performers — intended. And this magical transformation starts within the architecture of one brain.
Art has emerged from the human brain for tens of thousands of years, and every human culture makes it. Yet scientists are only beginning to understand how the brain perceives and produces art, and why.
Like so many artworks, the brain is largely an object of mystery. One secret yet to be discovered is how the fragile folds of matter locked inside our skulls can not only conceive art, create it and contemplate it, but can also experience being transported by it, out of the head, out of the body, out of space and time and reality itself.
Reporting and writing
Sarah L. Kaufman
Video production and editing
André Chung for The Washington Post
Design and production
Shelly Tan and Elizabeth Hart
Kat Downs, Suzette Moyer, Mitch Rubin and Christine Ledbetter
Daniel Mich and Malcolm Cook
“Swan Lake” by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky
Additional video assistance
Randolph Smith, Kyle Barss and Libby Casey
Additional photos and footage
New York City Ballet’s production of Peter Martins’ “Swan Lake,” featuring Sara Mearns as Odette/Odile and Jared Angle as Prince Siegfried.
Washington Ballet dancers Nicole Graniero and Corey Landolt photographed and videotaped at Maryland Youth Ballet. Costumes by Judith Hansen.
Grateful acknowledgment of research and insights from
Julia F. Christensen, City, University London and Warburg Institute, London.
Emily S. Cross, Director of the Social Brain in Action Lab, Bangor University, Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales.
Apostolos P. Georgopoulos, Department of Neuroscience, University of Minnesota, Director of the Brain Sciences Center in the Minneapolis Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care System.
Uri Hasson, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Institute, Princeton University.
Corinne Jola, Division of Psychology, Abertay University, Dundee, Scotland.
Charles Limb, Chief of the Division of Otology, Neurotology and Skull Base Surgery at the University of California at San Francisco.
V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California at San Diego.
Semir Zeki, Laboratory of Neurobiology, University College London.
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