How Abstract Art Makes You Happy

Artist Rachael Harbert dancing along a sidewalk holding two abstract paintings

Art as an Escape from Reality

No form of art is made for an immediate practical use but rather allows us, the viewers, to detach from reality. Our brains respond differently to art than it does when we view everyday objects or visual scenes. At a minimum, our cognitive response is one of curiosity. Why is that?

Our brains analyze the various visual scenes we encounter daily – our reflection in the mirror as we brush our teeth, the cars next to us on our way to work, our desk as we sit in front of our computer. Over time, our brain develops rules and laws associated with these daily scenes. In contrast, art challenges these rules and laws… especially, abstract art. With art, elephants can fly, the sun can be blue, and a we can suspend ourselves in the air without strings or wings.

Art as an Emotional Release

Two people brains making a connection

Viewing art activates the brain regions associated with emotion and goal setting.

For the artist, the creation of the art serves as a healing release of unexpressed emotions, especially when an artist is creating work to oppose negative emotions rather than simply venting them.

Viewers witness and vicariously interact with what they see in front of them. Instead of being “passive recipients of actions and images, people challenge themselves and work through the emotions they see presented in the artistic message”. Therefore, art is therapeutic… giving humans a higher level of satisfaction in releasing emotions rather than simply managing emotions on their own.

Abstract vs. Representational Art – How our Brain Responds Differently

Representational art presents real forms, objects and scenes that we are familiar with on a daily basis. On the other hand, abstract art is defined as non-representational or object-free creative works.

When compared to other art forms, abstract art creates responses in humans unlike all the other art forms.

Localized vs. Widespread Brain Activity

Abstract art doesn’t activate a localized or a single region of the brain like landscapes, portraits and still life. Rather, it activates multiple parts of the brain simultaneously. Eye tracking studies reveal that people freely scan abstract art over the whole surface, whereas people fixate on figurative details within representational art.

Interesting vs. Positive Response

In general, viewers find representational art interesting, since real scenes and objects are presented in new ways and styles while abstract art evokes positive emotions.

The brain classifies and understands representational art quickly, and since less brain power is expended to understand it, the brain prefers representational art over abstract art. At least, initially.

Abstract art introduces unfamiliar scenes, creating confusion for the brain. As a viewer is more exposed to abstract art and becomes familiar with it — through a title, a description, an artist’s statement, a chat with the artist — the confusion is remedied, and the pleasure centers of the viewer's brain are stimulated.

Abstract Art’s Arousal – the Novice vs. the Expert

Those with artistic training and expertise exhibit more arousal when looking at modern and abstract works as compared to non-experts. In general, non-experts show more arousal to classical works, for one simple reason.


The expert has had more exposure to abstraction and has developed a more mature appraisal of art, so the complexity or confusion associated with abstract art is easier for the expert to comprehend. The expert simply understands his or her response more fully on a cognitive level, experiences the satisfaction of abstract art more quickly and can express the experience more descriptively.

Doesn’t that encourage you to get to know more about abstract art?

Abstract Art Rewards Us By Accessing Hidden Parts of Our Brain

In a neuroscience article published by the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, it is proposed that “abstract art frees our brain from the dominance of reality by creating new emotional and cognitive associations in areas of the brain that are otherwise harder to access.”

Essentially, abstract art enables a viewer to access inner parts of the brain that he or she otherwise doesn’t access very often. For one, abstract art is reminiscent of our early visual processes as infants where we saw the world as rays of light, lines, edges, simple forms, colors and movements. As we matured, the light, lines and colors were reconstructed by our brain as real forms. So, when we view abstract art, it’s as if our brain is accessing those deep, inner and early connections our brain made when we were learning to visually define the world around us.

Since humans are attracted to abstract art, it stands to reason that accessing these difficult-to-reach regions of the brain are rewarding.

Explore Abstract Paintings on a Regular Basis

Abstract painting of a blue, green and aqua cosmos

Hopefully you are encouraged you to explore the world of abstract art more fully with the goal of understanding it more and more. Your brain will reward you by stimulating your pleasure centers.

7 Ways to Stimulate Your Brain's Pleasure Centers by Better Understanding Abstract Art

You can browse over 150 original, one-of-a-kind abstract, expressionistic and abstract impressionistic paintings here on my website. Here are 7 ways for you to better understand abstract art...

  1. Click on a painting in my online gallery to see its title, description, and paintings similar to it. Sometimes, I even include a personal statement about the painting.
  2. Watch one of my videos to see how I have created some of my paintings from start to finish.
  3. Read an article from my blog where I showcase a painting, its creation or talk about its meaning or inspiration. Here are several interesting articles:
  4. Visit my website regularly to view new abstract paintings that I have posted.
  5. Like my Facebook page, Art by Rachael – to get updates on my paintings.

    Rachael Harbert's Facebook page

  6. Follow me on Instagram, rachaelharbert – where I regularly post my paintings.

    Rachael Harbert's Instagram page

  7. Ask me about my abstract paintings by sending a message through my Contact page, Facebook or Instagram.

Abstract art serves an important cognitive and emotional role. Abstract art encourages our brain to respond in a less stereotypical manner, to explore new connections, to activate alternate paths for regulating emotions, and to form new and possibly creative links in our brains. Why not resolve to explore the benefits that abstract art can bring to you?

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