Your brain is helping you cope in a museum.

How the Brain Reacts When You're Looking at Art
Credit: Sita Fidler

Whether at the Louvre or the Prado, travelers visiting foreign cities flock to museums to see some of the world’s most renowned works of art.

Some of these famous paintings and sculptures, particularly those of religious and historic scenes, depict bloody and gruesome images. And a new study may help explain how the brain copes with these types of images by understanding them as art.

Scientists at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands showed 24 student participants in the study a variety of photographs.

They made some more visually pleasing by enhancing contrast and making other tweaks, told the students that some images were art and others were not, and then measured brain activity via an EEG. Students then rated each image based on attractiveness and likability, according to Medical Xpress.

Researchers measured a type of electromagnetic activity in the students' brains right after they were shown a photograph. After being told the photograph was a work of art, the amplitude of the reaction was smaller, and participants rated the likability as higher.

“They react less emotionally to it, but they appreciate it more,” lead researcher Noah Van Dongen told Travel + Leisure. “Our expectation was that because you expect it to be art, you’re not only looking at the content, but also the form of it, its formal features.”

This finding may help us understand how we can find pleasure in looking at art that portrays upsetting, violent scenes. Van Dongen noted the example of Francis Bacon, a 20th-century Irish artist who was famous for his grotesque works of art.

“We still appreciate him as art, and it’s probably because of these emotional regulation strategies,” Van Dongen said.