Jonathan Schooler, University of California Santa Barbara

Engaging the Brain in Art

What if we knew more about how art affects how we think?

What if we understood how creativity is integral to the human search for meaning?

What if religions knew how art inspires spiritual growth?

Grant Title
Expanding Minds: The Cognitive Processes Promoted by Exposure to Art
Legal Organization
University of California Santa Barbara
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 June 2022
End Date: 30 November 2023
Grant Amount

You don’t have to spend much time in a gallery, theater, or concert hall to realize that art causes vastly different responses. At the same time, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “I just don’t know what to make of it.” It’s a simple acknowledgment that the experience is taking them beyond the filters of what they already know, potentially changing what and how they think.

Beyond aesthetics, art seems to have the capacity to provoke an understanding of some deeper truths about ourselves and our world. Yet, despite this assumption, research has mostly focused on emotional outcomes: how art makes us feel. Far fewer studies have investigated how aesthetic experiences register in our brains — which cognitive processes are involved and how they inform understanding.

The relationship of psychology, cognition, and art interests Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D., professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Building on an earlier exploration and with funding from Templeton Religion Trust, he’s now using empirical methods to test a hypothesis that art informs understanding by expanding capacities in five cognitive realms. These include creativity, curiosity, intellectual humility, empathy, and transliminality (the permeability between conscious and unconscious thoughts).

Art allows for the generation of new ideas and the synthesis of a new understanding.
Jonathan Schooler

“Rather than a single leap from the unknown to the known, knowledge conferred through the arts manifests incrementally and cooperatively, requiring active participation from the viewer,” Schooler says. “Our initial findings suggest that this process may facilitate an expanded state of cognitive processing. In this way, art doesn’t transmit discrete units of knowledge, necessarily. Rather, it manipulates the mental space that knowledge can exist in. Art allows for the generation of new ideas and the synthesis of a new understanding.”

Schooler‘s study is investigating the potential cognitive impacts of art in three domains — film, visual art, and music. Notably, he’s also examining how personality — that mysterious interplay of nature and nurture — may determine how we respond to art in its multiplicity of forms: from music to paintings, abstract to representational, avant-garde to conventional.

Sociology and art history studies have long investigated the ways that culture influences arts experiences. For example, the 1913 Armory Show was touted as the international introduction of modern art. But it took decades before a noteworthy Picasso exhibit was mounted in the United States and the Museum of Modern Art got off the ground. The effort, scholars say, was delayed by war, economic crisis, and cultural skepticism.

In contrast, with its attention to the impacts of individual personality, Schooler’s research puts an idiosyncratic – and potentially more personally meaningful — lens on people’s experiences of art.

Trying to understand the fit between the individual and the art will give us a deeper understanding of how art inspires us.
Jonathan Schooler

It’s an ambitious undertaking that Schooler says is both doable and overdue. He’s confident that the impacts of commingling art and empirical science through research can be profound, illuminating both the basic cognitive processes enhanced by art and how broadly these effects occur. “Furthermore,” he adds, “by examining the relationship between personality differences and artistic conventionality, we may begin to understand how different forms of art may uniquely enhance the understanding of different kinds of people.”

Personality, Preferences & Impact

The impact of personality adds an important and intriguingly nuanced layer to Schooler’s study. In addition to tests that measure cognitive impacts, research participants are also undergoing a battery of personality tests. The resulting metrics are then correlated with cognitive impacts as they experience different kinds of artworks.

“Trying to understand the fit between the individual and the art will give us a deeper understanding of how art inspires us in assorted ways,” Schooler maintains.

Of particular interest are an individual’s openness to experience, need for closure, and a concept known as schizotypy.

“Schizotypy is sort of openness to finding meaning where others might not,” Schooler explains. “In our previous study, we found that people who are high in schizotypy were inspired by avant-garde art. They ended up showing greater conceptual expansiveness when seeing avant-garde art compared to conventional art. In contrast, people who were less open-minded in terms of this meaning-making characteristic were more inspired by conventional art. We speculate that this meaning-making trait may be very important for having a curious mindset in the world. These are people who thirst for information because they can integrate it into an ever-increasing understanding.”

Toward More Meaningful Art Experiences

Cognitive responses to art are an aspect of our humanity that profoundly affects us all, claims Schooler. “We all gravitate to art. We all recognize its impact. We all have particular kinds of art that we seek out. So, it seems that it’s this low-hanging fruit of a domain to investigate that has all sorts of possibilities.”

He hopes this project will lead to a reliable way to determine which types of artworks resonate with which types of viewers. That, in turn, can potentially enhance experiences and expand appreciation of the powerful impact of art.

“I don’t think that art is just for expanding understanding,” he emphasizes. “I think that art has a value for its own sake, that there is an aesthetic appreciation that has merit in and of itself. That said, it’s really intriguing to think about how else does art affect us? Can it lead us to think about the world in different ways? Can it broaden our minds? Can it increase our creativity? Can it cause us to think about things in a different way? It’s an exciting premise that art changes how we see the world and that we can dig down deep and understand that change.”

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