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Can Viewing Art Literally Move You?

2012 July 29
by Eric Horowitz

The subjective nature of art makes it an odd fit for something as computational as cognitive psychology, but a new study at the nexus of those two subjects suggests something surprising about the way we respond to certain paintings. Through a series of five experiments researchers from Purdue and Colorado State believe they have found the first evidence that  looking at a painting can unconsciously lead people to simulate the actions of the painter.

Participants in the study were shown a series of paintings that appeared to have been made with gestural brushstrokes that moved to the left or to the right. After initially placing their finger on a center button, participants were asked to press a button on the right or left based on the painting’s color (experiment 1) or an unrelated symbol superimposed on the painting (experiment 2). The researchers found that it took less time for participants to move their finger when they were moving it in the same direction as the painting’s brushstrokes. After ruling out certain visual factors that could account for the difference in times, the researchers concluded that participants were faster when moving in the direction of the brushstrokes because they were already unconsciously simulating the actions of the painter.

The researchers went on to speculate about what it means for understanding how we experience art:

Observers automatically simulated the actions implied by a painting’s brushstrokes, revealing a connection between the artist and audience never before demonstrated by cognitive science. This result confirms the action painters’ anecdotal insight that action is expressed through painting. It is remarkable because it implies a new aspect of the cognitive processing of abstract, gestural art. These processes can no longer be limited to strictly visual patterns on the canvas; instead, we have shown that an artist can resonate with her audience via her action. Consequently, attempts to understand the cognitive processing of gestural art should include the science of action observation.

The interesting follow-up question is why our brains behave this way. I think one possible explanation is that it’s part of a deep-rooted and unconscious learning mechanism. When we see something that’s been made, we unconsciously mimic the actions we believe were taken to make it. That way if a situation should arise in which we want to reproduce what was previously observed, our procedural memory contains a stronger trace of whatever movements were used to create it.

Alternatively, one could take the study to mean that there really is a tiny artist inside all of us who’s screaming to be let out. But whatever you do, don’t let him out. He knows too much and can’t be trusted.
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Taylor, J.E.T., Witt, J.K., & Grimaldi, P.J. (2012). Uncovering the connection between artist and audience: Viewing painted brushstrokes evokes corresponding action representations in the observer Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.06.012

3 Responses leave one →
  1. July 29, 2012

    I’m not sure if you are familiar, but a type of neuron in the brain called mirror neurons fire when you see someone else doing something. This is believed to be a key component in learning and is probably not completely unlike the experience you write about. It might be seen that our brains create virtual representations of everything we see around us in order to fully understand its meaning.

    • July 29, 2012

      That’s exactly what I think makes the study so interesting — it’s not simply mirror neurons firing when we see something, it’s that a process similar to a mirror neuron firing might occur from imagining something. Or at least from imagining something that stimulates us the way a painting does.

      • August 1, 2012

        It’s a fascinating thing, the brain. More so when we realise that our brain is fascinated by itself!
        I love exploring the complexities of neurology; it underpins everything we do in our lives.

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