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Why watching videos of people creating art is good for you

Watercolor Painting

Bench Accounting | Unsplash

Anna O'Neil - published on 07/26/17

Ever wonder why it's so soothing to watch people paint? Brain science has some answers.

There are people on Instagram and Youtube gaining viral popularity just by filming themselves mixing paint,writing calligraphy, decorating cookies, or doing any number of simple, yet inexplicably fascinating things. They’re soothing, exciting, and somehow more than the sum of their parts. Why do we like them so much?

It has to do with our mirror neurons. These were discovered accidentally by Italian scientists studying monkeys. When the researcher reached for his own lunch, the parts of the monkey’s brain associated with the motor activity of reaching for food lit up. He was flabbergasted.

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It turns out that human beings have neurons that fire when we perform certain actions, and a subset of those very neurons also fire when we’re just watching people perform actions. (In a healthy brain, that is…  Sociopaths and people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have limited mirror neuron ability — they’re physically less able to be empathetic.)

Mirror neurons are basically the brain’s physical mechanism for empathy. They’re in play when you tear up if your husband is crying, or when you flinch when your kid scrapes his knee. Your brain is actually, in a very real way, feeling part of what the other person is feeling. Mirror neurons help to explain why joy is contagious, and why I always cry during that scene in The Lion King when Mufasa dies.

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Empathy isn’t just reserved for feeling other people’s emotions. The reason we love watching people make art (sped up, of course, because our attention spans are getting shorter by the day) is because in some very real way, our brains feel like we’re the ones making the art. That’s why it’s so intensely satisfying. Especially for a person who’s unskilled at, say, watercolor painting, or just doesn’t have the mental or physical energy to create something, it can be a wonderful thing to watch somebody else do it. You almost feel as good as if you were doing it, too.

So now that you know, embrace it! Your brain is reacting to these oddly satisfying videos exactly as it’s supposed to. Check out graphic designer Seb Lester’s addicting calligraphy, or artist Annette Labedzki’s oddly mesmerizing paint-mixing videos. You might have just found your new favorite way to unwind after an especially stressful day. 

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