Museum of Northern Arizona exterior

Your Brain on Art: A painting a day keeps stress at bay

Published on April 2, 2022 in the Arizona Daily Sun

Most museum visitors glance at each art object for 15 to 30 seconds. Fifteen seconds is about the same time it’s taking you to read this first paragraph, and if you turn the page here you’ll miss the best part, just like when you walk away from a painting after 15 seconds.

If you stay with it a bit longer, looking at art is good for the brain and body. That’s the point of Slow Art Day on April 2. On Slow Art Day museums around the world, including the Museum of Northern Arizona, help people discover the joy of spending time gazing at art.

Too often our brains are jittery, flickering through thoughts at the speed of a screen. We’re so intent on what’s next that we don’t notice the now. Blame the pace of modern society. Blame our chattering monkey-minds. Blame too much coffee.

We’ve heard that meditation or mindfulness can work wonders. That if we could just stop, concentrate on the breath, and empty our minds we’d feel so, so much better… but then that inner-monkey starts chattering again about the grocery list and the next deadline and the latest news and suddenly any shred of calm has been lost in the whirlpool of thoughts.

I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to slow down and maintain mindfulness, no matter how many research studies report it can reduce blood pressure and stress levels, improve my brain functions, and increase creativity. Looking at art makes it easier because there’s something beautiful to focus on. The art helps me stay in the moment, cultivating awareness and attending to the rise and fall of breath.

Research studies reveal why I feel happier, energized, and inspired after viewing art.  Contemplating art increases blood flow to my brain and activates the pleasure and reward systems. In some respects, it’s an out-of-body experience. Focusing on a painting causes mirror neurons in the brain to replicate the action, movement, and energy depicted. The longer I look, the more these neurons emotionally transport me into the art and away from my daily distractions.

In the past decade scientists have been able to watch what happens in the brain as people look at art, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) and Electroencephalograms (EEGs). Many studies found that art triggers the interior insula, which is connected to pleasant emotions, and the putamen, which has ties to the experience of reward. In another study, participants shown both an artistic rendition and a photograph had increased activity in the ventral striatum when looking at the painting or drawing. The ventral striatum is near the midbrain, produces dopamine, and plays a role in the decision-making vs reward system. Neuraesthetics professor Semir Zeki scanned participants brains while showing them images of paintings by major artists. The study found that when people viewed art that they considered beautiful, blood flow increased by as much as 10% to the brain area associated with pleasure — the equivalent to looking at a loved one.

More than just bringing good feelings in the moment, looking at art has lasting cognitive benefits. Art appreciation relieves mental fatigue and restores the ability to focus. Like other mindfulness practices, looking at art increases the efficiency of brain pathways that process information, enhancing the ability to see information accurately, according to a 2020 study. The same study found that mindfulness boosts the ability of the brain to direct attention, helping participants focus on the task and ignore distractions. After visiting an art museum, students showed stronger critical thinking skills and were more socially tolerant. For older adults, viewing art may help stave off cognitive decline.

I’ve experienced the cognitive renewal that comes from art. I’m lucky to work at a museum where I can easily take a 10-minute art break. Sitting quietly, staring at the colors of paint dancing across a canvas, new ideas well up. It might be words to a column I’m trying to write or an idea for a public program. For someone else it would likely be an elegant solution to a complex equation, a perfect line of computer code, or a new approach to a parenting problem. Just by letting my mind meditate on art for a moment, I find the answer my computer screen refuses to reveal.

As a bonus, viewing art is an afternoon break that won’t keep me up at night, the way a 3 pm coffee would. You probably live or work near a museum where for the price of membership you can also get a daily dose of art.

Taking time to look at art is something you can do any day and enjoy the calm and creativity it brings you. So next time you visit the museum, find a seat in front of a favorite piece of art and just look for a while.



Isbel, B., Weber, J., Lagopoulos, J. et al. Neural changes in early visual processing after 6 months of mindfulness training in older adults. Sci Rep 10, 21163 (2020).

Vartanian O, Skov M. Neural correlates of viewing paintings: evidence from a quantitative meta-analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging data. Brain Cogn. 2014 Jun;87:52-6. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2014.03.004. Epub 2014 Apr 4. PMID: 24704947.

Eastman Q. 2011 Jan 6. Viewing Art Activates Brain’s Reward Circuits.