On the 12th of September 1940, four boys in the Lascaux region of France were chasing their dog, Robot, who had disappeared down a hole left by a pine tree that had fallen over. The intrepid group slipped into the hole and fell into what is now called the Hall of the Bulls, a huge cave containing a fresco of cattle, deer, aurochs and horses, painted in masterful strokes and gorgeous colours by our prehistoric ancestors some 15,000-17,000 years ago. The exact purpose of these – and other – Palaeolithic cave paintings is still not known. Evidence suggests that they were not merely decorations of living areas since the caves in which they have been found do not have signs of on-going habitation. They are also often located in areas of caves that are not easily accessible. Some theories hold that cave paintings may have been a way of communicating with others, while other theories ascribe a religious or ceremonial purpose to them. What they do show is that our early ancestors had that powerful human ability of imagination and a way of communicating their imagined ideas to others in a permanent way.
Art seems to have a powerful effect on the human brain. In 2011 a study of this effect produced some surprising results. When the physical reactions of volunteers (who were viewing works of art widely considered to be beautiful) were monitored, blood flow to the brain increased by as much as 10% – this is the equivalent of gazing at a person you love! Art seems to stimulate the parts of the brain associated with pleasure. Art does seem to have the ability to make us feel better and this may explain why art is such an essentially human activity and a feature of the human condition.
Test the effect for yourself – take the opportunity to go somewhere local and look at some beautiful works of art. Failing that, gaze at a loved one – either way you should feel better!