What if we better understood the collective experience of art?
What if technology can help us decipher the experience and effects of art?
What if artists knew what people actually see in their art?
What do we look at when we look at art? And how does that affect our takeaway from the experience?
Our eyes see what is in front of them. But our minds determine what we look at and what we make of it. Our minds are always aware of others around us, which means that the experience of viewing art is fundamentally collective. Every time we visit a gallery or museum, we carry with us a brainful of background information: what we’ve learned from books, the media, our education, and whatever friends, family, and coworkers have had to say. While such influences are often scrambled, implicit and indirect, experts say they profoundly shape what we perceive.
What if the influence of others were lifted from the background of our minds into the foreground of our here-and-now, real-time experiences? What might be learned if we studied collective explorations of art in the moment they occur? And what if we used the tools and methods of neuroscience to measure it?
“One important question for what we get out of art is how we interact with it,” says Bahador Bahrami, Ph.D., director of the Crowd Cognition Lab at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. “Cognitive scientists in the past have examined the private visual explorations of art. But it’s entirely unknown how interactive, collective dynamics shape ways of looking to ways of understanding,” he notes.
Bahrami hopes to begin to fill that knowledge void with first-of-its-kind research into the group dynamics of viewing art. Funded by Templeton Religion Trust, he’s embarked on a project that aims to gain a new understanding of how we look at and make sense of art – collectively compared to individually.
It’s an early unpeeling of outer layers of the theory of aesthetic cognitivism – the idea that art produces a unique kind of understanding. Bahrami’s project is grounded on the speculation that we can’t begin to understand the effects of art without first deeply understanding the experience.
Harnessing everything technology has to offer is fundamental to Bahrami’s inquiry. He points out that eye-tracking instruments developed and first used in the 1930s were cumbersome and immobile. As a result, their use was confined to laboratories. In contrast, due to recent developments, an entire eye-tracking setup can now fit into the frame of conventional eyeglasses.
“This means,” he says, “that it’s now possible to track a person’s gaze seamlessly while they’re navigating unobtrusively in everyday environments — a museum or gallery, for instance. What’s more, new methods of data handling – namely, cloud storage and computing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence — enable us to establish real-time wireless loops between the eye-tracking device and the data-collection and analysis unit. And we can integrate all of this into interactive displays of the artwork the person is viewing.
“As a result,” he recaps, “we’re able to create gaze-contingent displays that respond in real time to how people examine an exhibited artwork.”
By allowing viewers to compare their ways of seeing with those of others, the project connects ways of looking to ways of understanding, revealing a person’s mental state by displaying precisely and instant-to-instant what captures their attention.
“It’s like having a mirror in front of you that tracks your brain,” Bahrami states.
A foundational aspect of this project is comparing the gaze patterns of individuals who view a work of art on their own and those who view it as a group that’s interactively discussing what they see. In so doing, the project is testing two conflicting social science hypotheses: social facilitation versus social loafing (also known as ‘herding” or “groupthink”).
“One hypothesis we’re testing is that having more people in the experience and hearing from them will increase variance. This view expects more diversity and dispersion of gaze in the presence of others,” Bahrami explains. “On the other hand, an opposite view expects that people in a group are more likely to focus on the commonalities and miss out the details that they would have found if they had been seeing the painting alone.”
He continues: “By testing these two contrasting hypotheses about the role of social context in the distribution of gaze, our project opens the way for discovering emergent phenomena that would not have been possible if we examined viewer behavior only individually.”
As innovative social cognitive neuroscience research, Bahrami’s project opens a new pathway for empirically assessing aesthetic cognitivism. The findings could become even more profound when compared with data from a parallel project investigating how people interact with visual displays of scientific information.
In addition, by interactively showing how people view a work of art, his work could be foundational for a new platform that galleries and museums can use to sample, record, and display visitors’ gallery experiences. And, by opening new lines of communication from viewers back to makers, it could result in valuable insights for artists to consider as they contemplate and create new works. The result could be works of art that reliably move people toward new knowledge and perhaps even an expanded understanding of transcendent realities.