Do you remember being a child and experiencing something completely new that you now find routine? Maybe it was seeing a large city for the first time, or hearing a new genre of music, or tasting your dad’s beer (purely hypothetical). These experiences were probably scary, or confusing, or even downright repulsive, but they were good for your brain, helping you to comprehend a bigger, richer, more nuanced world. This is the same thing that happens when you experience abstract art.
The neurological effects of abstract art are an area of study for neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel in his book Reductionism in Art and Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. In neuroscience, the terms bottom-up and top-down are used to describe two different ways of interpreting information. Top-down refers to meanings we glean from prior knowledge, such as symbols we’ve learned to interpret. The distinction between b and d is an example of top-down processes, as are the familiar references we look for in representative art.
Bottom-up thinking, however, is an understanding that we’ve gained instinctively, through eons of human development. An example of bottom-up thinking would be an aversion to heights, even if you’ve never suffered a fall. Bottom-up thinking requires no prior knowledge, and this is the process often activated by abstract art.
Reductionism is an appropriate word for Eric R. Kandel to begin his book title, because it’s a word used in both science and art. In science, reductionism is the study of a simpler form to further understand its more complex counterparts. Kandel won a Nobel prize for his study of the relatively simple brains of sea slugs to reveal new insights on learning and memory in humans, which are millions of times more complicated.
In art, reductionism is the simplification of a subject down to its most basic elements. When we view art that has been reduced to a single element, such as color or shape, our bottom-up processes try to make sense of it. Abstraction presents us with images for which we have no glossary, and our brains go into overdrive to interpret it. This extra work is not futile. Like the formative experiences of childhood, it helps us to experience art and the world at large on a deeper level.
So much abstract art is reduced to mere colors, and it’s difficult to discuss art and the brain without touching on color psychology. It’s a popular topic, covered by countless articles, but the fact of the matter is people don’t have consistent responses to color. The effect any particular color has on a person can have as much to do with that person as it does with that color. But while much of our response to color is top-down (e.g. blue for boys, pink for girls) there are still some instinctive associations we have with colors.
Red: high energy, excitement, passion
HW110A, Attraction III by Haynes Worth
Red is theorized by some to be the first hue we evolved to perceive. Being the color of blood, red is often pigeonholed as being a triggering color, but that’s not very fair. Red is also the color of blushed cheeks, a very significant social cue among humans, and studies have shown that people across the board are seen as more attractive when they wear red. We all know the negative connotations of this color, but don’t let that stop you from exploring its many other facets.
Pink: freshness, calm, femininity
DJ106A, Bright by Jaime Derringer
Here is a great example of top-down vs. bottom-up. In nature, we often experience pink in the form of blush or flowers. Our instinctive, bottom-up association with this color, similar to red, is flirtatious and charming. But top-down processing has trained us to immediately associate this color with femininity. Don’t let that limit you. A splash of this fresh, alluring color can bring a sense of tranquility and charm to a room.
Yellow: happiness, intensity
Yellow is the first color we notice, and it’s also the most difficult color for our brains to process (perhaps those two things are related). This commanding brightness gives yellow an association with happiness, but it also enables it to be cloying and overwhelming. There are no set rules on how to use color, but usually with this one, just a squeeze of lemon will do.
Fun fact: yellow and black is a color combo often used by venomous animals in nature to warn others. This is an instinctive association that seems to have found a place in modern society (think caution tape and certain road signs).
Orange: warmth, optimism
Orange is a combination of red and yellow, and it can possess the positive qualities of both while taking the edge off.
Blue: calm, peace
When early humans looked up in the morning and saw a clear, blue sky, they knew they could trust nature to not throw any hindrances their way. It was a signal that today was the day to take a chance on a daring venture. It’s no wonder that modern humans use blue to imply trustworthiness and competence.
Green: nature, fertility, growth
Green, like red and blue, is another color we can directly link to natural cues. The abundance implied by healthy, flourishing plants is rooted (pun intended) in this hue. A combination of blue and yellow, green possesses the serenity of blue, but less stagnant. The natural association with progress and abundance also plays into our top-down associations with green: go light, upward trending stocks, money.
Purple: extravagance, luxury, sass
Purple dye used to be so rare that it was reserved for nobility. While our association with the color is no longer quite so rigid, purple hasn’t completely shaken that reputation. While still associated with luxury, purple’s reputation has become less regal and more brazenly decadent.
White: cleanliness, sterility, freshness
White is a high maintenance color. It implies a commitment to cleanliness, which is why it’s so abundant in hospitals, bathrooms and hotel linens. A white room can be intimidating if overdone (imagine countless science fiction dystopias), but when done right, it tells a visitor that this space has been cultivated just for them.
Black: exclusivity, mystery
TG117A, Indefinable III by T. Graham
Black is, at its very essence, darkness, which can be construed as spooky, but modern usage of this color can imply a self-realized poshness. An establishment utilizing black in its interior design wants people to be enticed to find out more.
When considering art for an interior, consider how it will affect the people inhabiting the space. Perhaps patients waiting to see a therapist or clients about to negotiate a contract would benefit from the neurological benefits of abstract art. Perhaps customers at a luxury establishment would be validated by the sleekness of black. The art we hang on walls does more than look appealing, it can reinforce the function of that space.