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TURKU, Finland — Art pulls at you. People all around the world admire the creativity produced by the minds of others. However, the mechanisms that explain how that happens are still unclear. Now, a new study by a team at the University of Turku shows just how viewing art affects our emotions.

In all, 1,186 people participated in this research. The study used online surveys and eye movement recordings in the lab, measuring people’s reactions to over 300 pieces of art. The participants had to describe the feelings that the different artworks evoked within them.

“Viewing the art evoked many different kinds of feelings and emotions in people. Even though many of the pieces handled sad or scary topics, the emotions that the people experienced were mainly positive. The bodily sensations evoked by art also contributed to the emotions: the stronger the body’s reaction was to the artwork, the stronger were the emotions experienced by the subject,” says Professor Lauri Nummenmaa from the Turku PET Centre at the University of Turku, Finland, in a media release.

“In the artworks, human figures were the most interesting subject and were looked at the most. People have a tendency to empathize with each other’s emotions and this is probably also the case when we view human figures in art. The human emotions presented in art pieces can be absorbed by the viewer unnoticed, through so-called mirroring,” says Academician Riitta Hari from Aalto University.

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The image shows the bodily sensations evoked by art (A) as well as the most interesting areas in the paintings (B) and eye movements while viewing the art (C). CREDIT: Lauri Nummenmaa

Can art act as mental health therapy?

Emotion is central to art, and our cognitive and emotional systems all play a role in how we experience it. It doesn’t even take a lot of research to know this. However, the team is helping to deepen this understanding by delving a bit deeper into how it all works and what this means for mental health treatment.

“Our results suggest that our bodies have a significant role in the aesthetic experience. Bodily sensations can draw people to art: art evokes feelings in the body, and such stimulation of the body’s pleasure centers feels pleasant to the viewer. This is why the emotions and bodily sensations evoked by art can be used, for example, in mental health rehabilitation and care,” Prof. Nummenmaa explains.

Since this project only used self-reported emotions, more research focusing on psychophysiological response through tracking the state of the body in real-time could provide even more precise results. Overall, the study adds to existing evidence supporting the use of art as not only a source of positivity for all people, but as a viable therapeutic intervention for those who need it.

The findings are published in the journal Cognition & Emotion.

About Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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