The Arts

What happens when we look at art? What do we feel, think, or generally experience? What features of the artwork, the viewer, the context, and the interplay of these influences our experiences with art? And how can we also theoretically capture this complex interplay in theoretical models? That we can then subsequently test. These kinds of questions are guiding our empirical work on the psychology of art. In this subsection, we focus main on lab-based empirical work trying to understand the basic psychological processes, but see “The Museum”, “Urban Aesthetics”, and “Societal Impact” for specific sub-foci.

The Museum

Art is typically experienced in museums, galleries, and exhibition spaces. Therefore, as a lab, we are always interested in going outside of our psychology laboratory and looking at how art is experienced in real life (see also “Urban Aesthetics”) and specifically the museum. Research shows that art experience is generally enhanced in a museum context (compared to the laboratory). But why is this the case? What aspects about the museum create better experiences? The architecture? The curatorial narrative? The genuine pieces? Or perhaps, the people who go there or the social aspects of going to a museum together? And, how are our experiences different as a consequence? Do we need a special space to engage fully with art, get “the most out of it” either aesthetically—having transformative experiences–or perhaps also on the level of well-being or other benefits (see also “Societal Impact”)? These kinds of questions guide our scientific investigations in the museum. 

The Brain

All cognitive processes that are involved in aesthetic and creative experiences are a result of the underlying neuronal processes occurring within and in interaction with the brain. Thus, to understand all aspects of aesthetic experiences, we also need to understand the underlying neuronal mechanisms. So far, research has demonstrated that the brain is functioning as a network with specific properties – such as its flexibility, complexity, or topology – that shape the cognitive state and/or cognitive process of interest. To identify the causal relationship between these brain network properties and the aesthetic experience, we implement and combine state-of-the-art neuroimaging and neuromodulation methods such as functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), pharmacological approaches, and ultrasonic brain stimulation.

Aesthetics and Perception

While aesthetic experiences comprise a wide range of contextual influences and complex emotional and cognitive processing, the first things of a stimulus to be processed are its perceptual properties within our visual system. And many of these properties can influence our aesthetic preferences. For instance, symmetry and curvature are properties of shape that usually are liked by most people. (However, at the same time, there also exist large individual differences in these preferences, but that is a different story.) Other important perceptual qualities are harmony and spatial composition of objects in a picture or within a frame. And there are also specific preferences for single colors and combinations of different colors. For instance, western adults tend to prefer cool over warm colors and colors of high saturation and high lightness (obviously with some differences between individuals). Two often cited theories to explain these preferences are mere exposure (the more often people see certain objects, the more they like them) and fluency theory (more easily processed objects are also liked more).

Urban Aesthetics

Our city, despite the stereotype of a ‘concrete jungle’, is much more than an infrastructure of streets and buildings. Rather, cities form remarkably complex environments that awaken all of our senses; they are brimming with smells, noises, sights and the hubbub of daily life.  The city’s central position within our human world leads us to carefully consider its design and aesthetics. As such, we aim to gain further understanding of interactions with everyday environments. Where do we look as we navigate through our streets? What do we like in our cities? How do we engage with our neighborhoods? These are the questions we investigate within our team, leading to cities designs that foster city dwellers’ well-being, and creating meaningful experiences with the city.

Societal Impact

Art not only has the power to make intriguing impacts on our cognition, our emotions, our perceptions, our desires and beliefs, and, through doing this, to mark an intriguing vehicle for the study of human vision, social interactions, and psychology. Specifically, through its central importance in our society, our communications, our cultures, and our human engagements, art also can play a key role in affecting our societies, actions, beliefs, and bodies. Increasingly, this comes through the overt use of art to target social challenges—using art to make us feel better, relieve stress or anxiety, create a sense of community, beautify and restore our urban spaces, or even evoke change regarding contemporary topics such as immigration, empathy for others, or climate change. The EVA labs view these topics as an integral extension and focus of our empirical and theoretical work. We aim to integrate state-of-the-art empirical approaches from psychology, neuroscience, and phenomenology to conduct investigations or projects that identify and apply specific impacts of art. We do this especially via several funded projects.