New research could advance art therapy for treating neurological and psychiatric disorders

Studies conducted at the University of Vienna by Marie Curie fellow Matthew Pelowski have contributed to the formation of the Vienna Integrated Model of Art Perception, a holistic framework within which the multiple cognitive processes underlying art viewing can be systematically organized.

The project’s results include a comprehensive dataset of specific impacts of brain regions on art experience. More than understanding different people’s reactions to a Picasso or a Rembrandt, the research provides important insights into neuroaesthetics and the psychology of art, potentially advancing the use of art therapy to treat neurological and psychiatric disorders.

In the EU-funded ART AND BRAIN project, Pelowski and fellow researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation - in which a magnetic field causes electric current to flow in a small region of the brain - to study people as they viewed works of art. The researchers systematically manipulated three key brain regions associated with processing sensory information - the prefrontal, temporal and parietal lobes. They then recorded the test subjects’ cognitive, emotional and evaluative reactions through a specially designed survey and assessed them using Pelowski’s cognitive model.

The approach focuses on understanding not just the bottom-up cognitive processes derived from features of the artwork itself, such as its form or attractiveness, but also the top-down mechanisms that the viewer applies as a result, driven by their own memory, context and personality. The model can therefore describe how different cognitive processes impact the experience, and thus how an individual may come to particularly moving, disturbing, transformative or simply mundane interpretations of what they are viewing.

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