Not long ago, a friend and I wandered through a small-but-mighty art museum, stocked with a world-class collection that includes paintings by Monet, Degas and Renoir.
As always, I wondered: What is it that makes me pause longer by some paintings, while passing others with barely a glance? How can staring at a centuries-old landscape, which has nothing in common with my world, make me feel sad? Or inspired? And why are there always a handful of people who stand there mesmerized, much longer than I do? What do they see that I don’t?
See also: Take a Walk On Your Wildside
As it turns out, I’m probably not in the relatively small group psychologists say are “aesthetically sensitive.” (Those people tend to be smarter than average and better at divergent thinking, which also makes them good at problem solving).
But that doesn’t mean I can’t get my money’s worth from a trip to the museum, using it to change my perspective, and even inspire a new direction in my own work or life. While educators have long known how important visual art is for children’s imaginative development, here’s what researchers now believe about its impact on adults:
Art inspires risk-taking and decision-making. Researchers from Emory University’s School of Medicine asked a small group of students to view paintings by such masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Klee, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, and then view photographs of similar subjects. Researchers scanned the subjects’ brains, and found that the reward centers, as well as the portions of the brain involved in risk-taking and decision-making, lit up after viewing paintings, more so than when viewing photographs.
See also: Get Your Daily Dose of Wonder
Art makes us healthier. Anything that inspires feelings of awe and wonder, whether it’s a Van Gogh, a sunset or a symphony, is enough to boost our immune systems, as a recent study from the University of California Berkeley discovered. (Turns out these positive emotions cause lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines.)
Art = learning. New research from the National Endowment for the Arts says that one of the primary reasons people go to a museum or performance is to widen horizons: Some 63% of those who interact with the arts say they do so specifically because they want to learn something new.
Art makes us feel good. Research from the Happy Museum Project in the U.K. looked closely at people who attend museums, teasing out such variables as income, geography, and even whether they drink, smoke or have many friends. It turns out that those who follow the arts are happier than those who don’t. They also have higher self-reported levels of health.
See also: Why You Need More Awe and Wonder
Want to learn more than the casual trip to the museum can teach you? Courses in art history and appreciation are among some of the most popular MOOCs (massive open online courses): Check out the options at Learning Advisor.
Photo Credit: oil on canvas, The National Museum, London/Getty