Art has been an integral part of human existence since time immemorial, prompting scientists to try to understand its influence, whether it be therapeutic, aesthetically pleasing or emotionally evocative.
Now, psychology researchers have teamed up with art theorists to quantify how abstract art evokes different cognitive states to figurative or literally representative art.
They found that abstract art is associated with greater psychological distance, or how far away an event is imagined in space and time, as reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Think of a picnic, for instance, explains co-author Daphna Shohamy, from Columbia University, US. “You may imagine a picnic to be happening tomorrow (psychologically near) or in a year from now (psychologically distant).”
Theory says you’ll have different mental representations of those two events. Tomorrow’s picnic will have more concrete features, such as what to eat and where to go, while the distant one will have more abstract, higher level elements, like how much you’ll enjoy the occasion with friends.
So what’s that got to do with art?
While other research has found that people’s subjective and neurological experience of abstract art differs from that of figurative art, Shohamy and colleagues say their study shows that different degrees of artistic abstraction elicit measurably different mindsets.
“This means that art has an effect on our general cognitive state that goes beyond how much we enjoy it,” she says, “to change the way we perceive events and make decisions.”
To reach this conclusion, the team showed people abstract and figurative art, asking them to make decisions that would reveal how near or far away they perceived the art to be, such as whether they would hang a particular painting in a hypothetical gallery nearby or far away.
In three experiments – two online and one in the lab – respondents were shown 21 paintings that were fully abstract, partially abstract or representational, each set painted by the same artist whose art had become progressively more abstract to control for style features.
The online experiments, each with 840 different respondents, explored psychological distance in time and space. The lab experiment, which recruited 51 volunteers, controlled for personal preferences and experience that might influence their responses.
In each case, they found abstract art reliably elicited greater psychological distance, which the authors say indicates “a more abstract cognitive state”.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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