What the brain draws from: Art and neuroscience

Story highlights

Artists have developed tricks to fool the brain

Visual system has fast stream that helps us navigate and slow, detail-oriented stream

Luminance and color are important in creating illusions in artworks

CNN  — 

Pablo Picasso once said, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

If we didn’t buy in to the “lie” of art, there would obviously be no galleries or exhibitions, no art history textbooks or curators; there would not have been cave paintings or Egyptian statues or Picasso himself. Yet, we seem to agree as a species that it’s possible to recognize familiar things in art and that art can be pleasing.

To explain why, look no further than the brain.

The human brain is wired in such a way that we can make sense of lines, colors and patterns on a flat canvas. Artists throughout human history have figured out ways to create illusions such as depth and brightness that aren’t actually there but make works of art seem somehow more real.

And while individual tastes are varied and have cultural influences, the brain also seems to respond especially strongly to certain artistic conventions that mimic what we see in nature.

What we recognize in art

It goes without saying that most paintings and drawings are, from an objective standpoint, two-dimensional. Yet our minds know immediately if there’s a clear representation of familiar aspects of everyday life, such as people, animals, plants, food or places. And several elements of art that we take for granted trick our brains into interpreting meaning from the arbitrary.


For instance, when you look around the room in which you’re sitting, there are no black lines outlining all of the objects in your view; yet, if someone were to present you with a line-drawing of your surroundings, you would probably be able to identify it.

This concept of line drawings probably dates back to a human ancestor tracing lines in the sand and realizing that they resembled an animal, said Patrick Cavanagh, professor at Universite Paris Descartes.

“For science, we’re just fascinated by this process: Why things that are not real, like lines, would have that effect,” Cavanagh said. “Artists do the discoveries, and we figure out why those tricks work.”

That a line drawing of a face can be recognized as a face is not specific to any culture. Infants and monkeys can do it. Stone Age peoples did line drawings; the Egyptians outlined their figures, too.

It turns out that these outlines tap into the same neural processes as the edges of objects that we observe in the real world. The individual cells in the visual system that pick out light-dark edges also happen to respond to lines, Cavanagh said. We’ll never know who was the first person to create the first “sketch,” but he or she opened the avenue to our entire visual culture.


This brings us to modern-day emoticons; everyone can agree that this :-) is a sideways happy face, even though it doesn’t look like any particular person and has only the bare minimum of facial features. Our brains have a special affinity for faces and for finding representations of them (some say they see the man in the moon, for instance). Even infants have been shown in several studies to prefer face-like patterns over patterns that don’t resemble anything.