One Type of Art Can Help You See The Bigger Picture In Life – Study

STARING INTO THE SOOTHING LINES OF AN IMAGE THAT YOU CAN'T QUITE DESCRIBE is one of the joys of looking at abstract art. It turns out that it's also one of the style's major benefits. New research suggests that abstract art has qualities that can literally change our mindsets, and prompt us to let the minutia of day-to-day life fall away.


Over the course of three experiments, scientists at Columbia University found that abstract art tends to evocative of “psychological distance.” Psychological distance is a way to represent how far away events or objects are from ourselves. For instance, a picnic happening tomorrow is psychologically close, but one that will happen a year in the future is psychologically distant.


Study co-author Daphna Shohamy, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, tells Inverse that psychologically distant moments come to represent concepts rather than details – like the feeling of being with friends at a picnic rather than the minutia of planning a day out. Abstract art helps us tap into those feelings because it shifts our cognitive state away from concrete details, and towards abstract ideas, she explains.


Abstract: Does abstract art evoke a different cognitive state than figurative art? To address this question empirically, we bridged art theory and cognitive research and designed an experiment leveraging construal level theory (CLT). CLT is based on experimental data showing that psychologically distant events (i.e., occurring farther away in space or time) are represented more abstractly than closer events. We measured construal level elicited by abstract vs. representational art and asked subjects to assign abstract/repre- sentational paintings by the same artist to a situation that was temporally/spatially near or distant. Across three experiments, we found that abstract paintings were assigned to the distant situation significantly more often than representational paintings, indicating that abstract art was evocative of greater psychological distance. Our data demonstrate that different levels of artistic abstraction evoke different levels of mental abstraction and suggest that CLT provides an empirical approach to the analysis of cognitive states evoked by different levels of artistic abstraction.

“This means that art has an effect on our general cognitive state, that goes beyond how much we enjoy it, to change the way we perceive events and make decisions,” Shohamy says.



Shohamy and her colleagues' findings were published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


ABSTRACT ART CHANGES HOW YOU THINK – When you look at a realistic painting, it’s clear (at least at first glance) what you’re actually seeing: you’ll recognize familiar shapes like humans, animals and objects. But when we look at abstract art, the brain has fewer recognizable signposts to tell you exactly what you’re looking at.



In fact, eye tracking and brain imaging indicate that when we look at abstract art, we tend to move our eyes more “globally” around the painting, as opposed to focusing on certain objects. For instance, a 2011 study that analyzed eye movements in response to Jackson Pollock’s fractal paintings found that people tended to move uniformly across the whole canvas.



The authors of this recent paper call this universal gaze pattern an “exploratory strategy.” Essentially, we’re searching for meaning in that painting. The more abstract a painting is, the more onus is put on the viewer to assign “meaning, utility, and value,” the researchers write.


While previous work tells us that we may process abstract art differently, this paper shows abstract art can put us in a whole new state of mind.


The team had 840 Amazon Turk workers view one of 21 different paintings done by four famous abstract artists: Chuck Close, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Piet Mondrian. The paintings fell into three general categories:

  • Paintings with a clearly defined object

  • Paintings with a more abstract, yet still definable object

  • Paintings that were purely abstract

Piet Mondrian's "Farm Near Duivendrecht" is an example of representational painting. Mondrian's "Still Life with Ginger Pot II" is slightly more abstract, whereas his Composition in Blue Gray and Pink, is considered abstract in the study.


Read the full article here on Inverse


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