What if how we see art depends more on our brains than our eyes?
What if human minds have evolved with a special receptiveness to art?
What if insights into art experiences can enhance our understanding of religious experiences …. and vice versa?
Mind over matter. On the surface, it seems like such a simple, pragmatic phrase – something we probably heard more than once while growing up from our parents, teachers, or coaches, an easy way of encouraging us to buck up against challenges or problems. Yet, those three simple words deliver a concept of profound complexity: that the human mind has the power to form its own reality.
That concept has long fascinated people from many domains – philosophers, theologians, psychologists, parapsychologists, spiritualists, and magicians, to name a few. More recently, neuropsychologists, neurologists, and cognitive scientists have joined the exploration, lending their hypotheses and methods to the vast task of trying to understand how our minds really work – how we think, perceive, and remember.
Among them is Justin Gregory, DPhil, research director of Cognition Zero Foundation based in the United Kingdom. With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, he’s now also the principal researcher of an experimental multidisciplinary project that’s investigating if and how experiencing art intuitively sparks new insights and understandings. As someone who’s also done research in the cognitive science of religion and creativity, he’s interested in how the experience of art may have cognitive properties like those that underlie supernatural or religious experiences.
Building on his own and others’ research, Gregory is convinced that experiences of art and religion can and should be scientifically studied, and that insights from one can enrich the other.
As a starting point, he points to research in cognitive science that indicates people’s ideas about divinity or supernatural agents (he terms them “God concepts”) have specific cognitive properties. These properties, he claims, “make them more attention-grabbing and memorable, and also provoke greater curiosity and novel thoughts than most ordinary ideas.”
Similarly, Gregory contends, art across centuries has generated new insights and understandings in people across cultures. “Might this then be explained by ideas of art sharing cognitive properties with ideas of God?” he asks.
It’s an idea he’s putting to the test of empirical research.
Three properties of visual art are especially intriguing to Gregory and form the foundation of his current research.
Humans intuitively consider works of art as a form of communication. Considering art a form of communication recognizes that, like language, it conveys levels of meaning.
“Cognition has two knowledge layers,” Gregory explains. “Intuitive knowledge is largely unconscious, inherent, and developmentally natural. It’s triggered to give us a ready understanding of objects and forces in the world, whereas reflective knowledge is a product of our experience of the world.”
Borrowing from linguistic research, recent studies have suggested that an artist’s intent determines an audience’s appreciation of their art. In linguistic studies, this concept is called the relevance theory. A primary premise is that the mind is pre-programmed to attend to the intention of a communicator. The clearer the intention in the creation of the art, the easier it is to understand and the more likely the information transferred will be recommunicated.
Art violates our natural, intuitive expectations of objects. Psychologists say that how the structure of human brains develops dictates that we are born with inherent core knowledge – knowledge that precedes experiential learning and causes us all to see fundamentals of the world in essentially the same way. Gregory describes this core knowledge as “systems of intuitive knowledge structures that are triggered for expression as we develop in our cultural environment.”
One example is our expectations of objects. We expect them to be solid. We expect them to drop straight down. And for artifacts, we expect them to have some useful, tool-like functional purpose.
However, art is a nonfunctional artifact. As such, it defies our core expectations of what an artifact object should be and do; typically a piece of art is not used like an everyday, human made tool. It breaks the rules of our world as we perceive it. And this, Gregory contends, is precisely what makes it so provocative for communication of ideas, as well as being memorable.
Gregory’s experiment, conducted online, involves showing 12 well-crafted objects, created in collaboration with sculptor-maker Phil Young, to research participants ranging in age from preteens to seniors. Each object is presented with one of six randomly assigned labels and descriptions. These position it as either an artwork or an everyday item. In addition, the descriptions differ in to what degree they convey the intent of the maker.
For example, some participants are told that the object they’re viewing is titled “Water Drop” and they’re given this statement: “In this work of art, I observed the relationship between light and water as it travels through space in droplets. The indentations and cavities depict how reflections fracture as light splits at speed.” Other participants view the same object and read the same statement about it except that it’s labeled a Desk lamp and the opening of the statement reads, “In this functional item, I….” Still, other participants are told that the object is a Desk lamp and shown this statement: “For this useable item, the craftsperson carved a cast block using files and custom-made drilling tools for the gloves. A two-piece mould and liquid clay formed the hollow vessel. Holes were cut before finishing.” Across six levels, the experiment tests the relevance of the maker’s intent in relation to the audience’s comprehension of the object.
There are two testing periods: immediately following the viewing experience and one week afterward. Survey questions ask participants to rate how much they liked or disliked each object, whether they considered it art, what they noticed about it, etc. In addition, the delayed test includes tasks designed to capture participants’ resulting thoughts and ideas, memorability measures, and what they paid attention to and what they ignored – all designed to attach metrics to the premise that art generates increased levels of insight and memorability.
To accomplish these research goals, Gregory is working with a tech team to create a proprietary data collection platform. Future researchers will be able to take these tools off the shelf to use in further studies.
Does just being told something is art predispose us to think it’s so? Is art by definition nonfunctional? If so, is that the heart of its mystery, appeal, and power to change us and whatever reality we believe to be true? Is the relationship between what we see in art and what we know always dynamic and always extending?
“That which is counter to our intuitive expectations for how a particular kind of object should behave is memorable, attention-grabbing, thought-provoking, and culturally contagious due to a greater likelihood of being communicated and replicated,” Gregory says. “Similar to God concepts, Art, therefore, has the natural ability to provoke novel insights and understandings in observers across cultures due to its being a counterintuitive concept and a special act of communication.”
It’s a big idea with big implications for how and why we as humans value art. It proposes that, more than just stimulating our senses, art can also enrich our minds and our lives.