This is your brain on Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei

This is your brain on Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei

You wander around a gallery staring at the artworks on the wall. You read the descriptions. You interact with installations – and you emerge from an exhibit feeling like your brain has been prised open. You’re a bit overwhelmed but also more awake.

Something happens to our brains on art.

Considering our day to day lives are punctuated by sensory saturation, it’s amazing that interacting with art contained within a gallery can impact our brains in such a marked way.

Abigail Tucker reported on research in the Smithsonian Magazine that showed that our bodies react to art in very physical ways – we see an image of Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Paradise, where Adam’s arm is raised in defence, and the part of our brain linked with wrist movement lights up.

But what if we could see a visual representation of how our brains react to art?


On selected nights during NGV’s Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibit, you can get a picture that will show you how your brain reacts to their work.

You put on a wireless, flexible headset. The headset is electroencephalography technology – simply put, it records the electrical activity of groups of brain cells. You then put in noise cancelling headphones that fill your ears with white noise, so the only thing your brain is stimulated by is selected pieces of art by Warhol and Ai. Your brain’s reactions generate a thoughtograph.

In a thoughtograph, your reactions to visual stimulation are represented by squiggly coloured lines. If there is a thick, wiggly line it indicates an intense reaction to the artwork. Your reactions to each work are reflected in an abstract shape like a crown above your head.


We asked La Trobe University staff member Annabel O’Neill what it was like to make her own thoughtograph. She said:

To be honest, I was a little bit nervous that the technology might demonstrate I had no brainwaves of consequence… I was scared that where everyone else’s minds were delivering beautiful technicolour pictures, mine might deliver a mess of grey stripes.

I was cautiously excited when I sat down and put on the headset. I tried to clear my mind of other thoughts so I could concentrate on the artworks.

And… it was a beautiful experience. Really looking at the artwork, with my mind free of all other distraction, affected me more than I’d anticipated!

I’m not surprised by how colourful my thoughtograph is – when you think about it, there are few things that open your mind as much as seeing art like this.          


You can see your own brain on Ai Weiwei and Andy Warhol’s art at selected Friday Nights at the NGV. Check out upcoming events.