UK Museums to Measure the Impact of Art with EEG Monitors

How are we affected by artwork? Art Fund hopes to answer this question, and inspire more museum visits, by rolling out brainwave scans in several U.K. art institutions.

Next year, visitors to select museums across the U.K. who don headgear might not be listening to audio guides. Instead, they’ll be wearing electroencephalogram (EEG) monitors as part of a project examining the impact of artwork on human brains. Launched by Art Fund, the country’s national charity for art, the initiative aims to spur museum attendance by sharing the resultant data with the public.

Woman wearing headset looks up at painting depicting woman at bar
The project was piloted at London’s Courtauld Gallery. Hydar Dewachi/Courtesy Art Fund

It’s the first time this kind of research has ever been shared with the public in this manner. “By visualizing the way engaging with amazing art and objects can truly impact us, we hope we will inspire more people to explore museums and galleries,” said Jenny Waldman, Art Fund’s director, in a statement.

While 95 percent of adults in the U.K. believe visiting art institutions is beneficial, 40 percent visit fewer than once per year, according to research commissioned for the project. Meanwhile, 16 percent believe art has no impact on them.

Art Fund hopes the output of the EEG monitors will change those statistics. The recorded brain activity of museumgoers will be visualized as three-dimensional lines by special effects company The Mill and interactive artist Steph Li. The colorful ribbons will become wider when participants are alert and begin weaving when they are confused, for example, while bright highlights will appear when they feel they recognize a painting.

Photo of colorful brain waves and a painting of a man with a bandaged ear
Brainwave reactions to Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear. © The Courtauld and Hydar Dewachi/Courtesy Art Fund

What emotions are generated by looking at artwork?

The project was piloted at London’s Courtauld Gallery earlier this month, where Art Fund recorded the brain waves of visitors as they looked at artwork by Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Édouard Manet and other artists. The responses showed not only that artwork impacts human brains, but that different works do so in different ways.

Among viewers of Vincent van Gogh’s iconic 1882 Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear, for example, 34 percent said they experienced curiosity while 33 percent recorded feelings of intrigue. But for Leon Kossoff’s dark and abstract 1962 painting Shell Building Site, only 20 percent of attendees expressed curiosity, with 28 percent feeling confused. Meanwhile, 27 percent of viewers felt relaxed as they took in Lilies in a Jar, a 1914 pastel work by Matthew Arnold Barcy Smith.

Research has shown that artwork can have a positive impact on the brain, according to Dr. Ahmad Beyh, a neuroscientist and Postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University. “We know that when a person views something that they find beautiful, for example, a face or an abstract painting, their brain’s pleasure centers light up and its visual sensory center is engaged more intensely,” he said in a statement. “Studies suggest that this is accompanied by a release of dopamine, which is also known as the feel-good neurotransmitter.”

The initiative will tour several U.K. museums next year in a campaign for Art Fund’s National Art Pass, which offers members of the public free entry to hundreds of artistic and cultural institutions across the country. The initiative may inspire more people to visit the nation’s museums, which are still struggling with attendance post-Covid. Total admissions at top U.K. institutions in 2022 were 23 percent lower than in 2019, according to data from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions published earlier this year.

UK Museums to Measure the Impact of Art with EEG Monitors