New Technology Shows Museum Visitors How Art Activates Their Brains
November 15, 2023
Our appreciation of good art has always had an intangible and essentially unknowable quality. But now, everyday museumgoers may be able to get new insights into how their brains respond to what they see. The U.K.’s Art Fund has launched a project that visualizes brainwave activity in real-time to measure our reactions to different works of art. The initiative was piloted at the Courtauld Gallery in London earlier this month and will tour to select U.K. museums in 2024.
Last week I tried out the technology, which uses a slim, wireless headset that presses sensors against the forehead and tucks behind the ears, a bit like wearing glasses. The brainwave data is transmitted in real time to a large screen at the center of the room that is operated by an expert, who is busy watching your mind’s every move. When I slipped on the headset, I was pleased to see immediate evidence of brain activity, demonstrated by the looping and undulating ribbons that began to swirl across the screen. I set off around the room, perhaps overly conscious of the need to think normal thoughts and react to the art as I would under normal circumstances.
I later learnt that while I was taking in some calming still-lifes by Patrick Heron and Matthew Smith, my ribbons began to glow, exhibiting lighter gold threads that indicate I had stumbled across something that felt familiar. Then I approached the considerably murkier Shell Building Site (1962) by Leon Kossoff, a large canvas densely covered in thick, impastoed paint that has a strongly abstracting effect. My ribbons began spinning into a corkscrew shape that apparently signifies deep thought or problem-solving. Unsurprisingly, I showed noticeably fewer of either brainwave pattern while I was merely crossing the room.