How Art Is Displayed Affects How Our Brain Processes It

Where and how art is placed in a museum can influence how you see it. . (Photo: Saaton/Shutterstock)

As a member of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I was able to see the current exhibit on Edvard Munch a few days before it opened to the general public. There was one painting that struck me quite deeply: "Night in St. Cloud." In all shades of blue with a billowing yellow-patterned curtain in the foreground, I first saw it as a picture of moonlight, as seen from inside a room with large windows. I marveled at how Munch captured the moon as it paints the floor — then finally I saw the man in sitting in the shadow.

Some kind of thunderbolt went off in my brain and I was emotionally flattened and uplifted at the same time. The solitary man in the shadows of the moonlight was a self-portrait of the artist, but I saw my night-owl self in it, too.

I enjoyed the rest of the exhibit, even sans the stolen "Scream" painting that is the artist's most famous, but I kept returning again and again to "Night In St. Cloud." It wasn't even popular enough to have garnered a postcard in the SFMOMA store, but I will never forget it. It joins a particular Wassily Kandinsky at the Guggenheim in New York City, Rufino Tamayo's last self-portrait at the eponymous museum in Mexico City and Leonora Carrington's "And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur" as those imprinted on my mind and heart.

Your brain on art

But why those paintings? Neurobiologists are studying how our brains react to art, with one goal to figure out how to ensure that the way art is displayed doesn't get in the way of our potential connection to or enjoyment of it. For instance, it's now well-known that the practice of hanging paintings one above another, and in rows, as was common in previous centuries' salons — resulting in a wall covered with as many images as would fit — makes it difficult for the brain to see any individual painting as well as if it is hung by itself on a blank wall.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, is taking these new ideas about how we see best seriously. It has appointed a neuroscience researcher, Dr. Tedi Asher, who is taking what we know about brain function to inform exhibition design. One simple change has been to simplify exhibition spaces, including wall text, so there are few distractions while looking at a piece of art. “It’s been shown that the neurons that respond to one [object] are going to actively suppress the neurons that respond to the other [object]. The representation of the objects in the brain seems to be weakened by having multiple objects,” Dr. Asher told Artsy.

That's just the beginning of how neuraesthetics (neuroscience plus aesthetics) will change how visitors to the museum will experience the art there. The museum is reinstalling its permanent collection over the next 5 years, and Asher's research findings will determine what how that collection will be viewed in the future.

The Peabody often considers senses other than vision when it comes to showing art, as their philosophy is the more types of sensory stimulation, the more impact a piece of art (or anything else) will have on the brain. Even prior to Asher's tenure, the museum has employed live dancers to echo sculptures in an Auguste Rodin exhibition. In another that delved into the Asian art in Amsterdam, the scent of spices — cinnamon, cloves and pepper — greeted visitors. All these initiatives have proved popular — the Peabody is experiencing an increase in visitors year-over-year, while other institutions struggle to keep attendance numbers up.

But given how little we ultimately know about cognition — neuroscience is still in its toddler phase, if not its infancy — we still have plenty to learn about what really helps us see or understand art better. "Ultimately, the deciding factor will be whether or not we’re able to demonstrate that, by better understanding some key elements of the way our brains work, we can create experiences that more people find meaningful and impactful,” says Asher.