What if visiting an art museum is more than just a pleasurable way to spend an afternoon?
What if aesthetic experiences change the way we think?
What if they make us better people?
What is art good for? Unless you’re an artist – and sometimes even if you are – art doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t protect you from harm or advance a career. Yet virtually every city in the world has an art museum, and a great many people visit them religiously.
Therein could lie a clue to the “why” of art. Maybe we seek out aesthetic experiences because, not unlike religious experiences, they seem to distance our thoughts from everyday concerns, leading us to loftier thinking about our existence and our world.
It’s not a new notion. Philosophers have long theorized about the changed states of mind that seem to occur when people view art. For example, eighteenth-century German Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant suggested that people who appreciate beauty would be more likely to have a moral, good character. A century later, English aesthetician Edward Bullough introduced the concept of “psychical distance” in aesthetic experiences, a phenomenon he described as what “appears to lie between our own self and its affections.”
The concept of art as a way of understanding has captivated the minds of great thinkers for centuries, and it continues to do so today.
But are such theories demonstrably true? And, if so, to what effect – if any?
“Throughout history, many philosophers have suggested that beauty is morally edifying and leads to human flourishing, that there’s something valuable occurring. But there hasn’t really been any empirical research that explored this idea in a quantifiable way,” says Simone Schnall, Ph.D., Professor of Experimental Social Psychology and Director of the Body, Mind and Behaviour Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.
There is, however, relevant research in contemporary social psychology, she notes, that can help tackle this question. In particular, it has been shown that people interpret distant events and objects in a higher-level, more abstract way. For example, when thinking about attending a conference in the distant future, we tend to consider abstract factors, such as the professional benefits of learning about new work, meeting up with colleagues, and so on. However, thinking about the same conference visit in the near future shifts our focus to concrete aspects, such as the practicalities of booking a hotel room or deciding what to pack. Depending on which construal we use, we may arrive at different conclusions regarding whether attending the conference would be worthwhile.
However, very little research has focused on the distancing, transcendent mindsets that reportedly occur when people experience art.
With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, Schnall and her team began the challenging process of designing experiments to address two intriguing questions:
Their initial task has been to design and pre-test methods for a subsequent, fuller-scoped research project. This has involved several types of experiments conducted in museums, in labs or online, encompassing both control and experimental conditions. For example, in one experiment, participants were shown images of objects that could be considered both useful and beautiful – a museum-quality teapot, for example. They were randomly assigned to rate the objects either in terms of their beauty or their practical utility. After doing so, standard psychological measurement survey tools were administered to assess impacts.
“We’re looking at whether engagement with aesthetic objects causes people to endorse certain values – kindness towards others, for example, or social concerns, as opposed to being focused on one’s own benefits,” Schnall explains.
Since embarking on this research it has become increasingly clear that it is a complicated undertaking – even more so than Schnall and her team imagined at the onset. Human experience is complex, as is engagement with art and other forms of aesthetic appreciation. Beauty, it is often said, is in the eye of the beholder, so the stimuli that elicit the predicted effects in some people may not do so for other people.
“It sounds like a simple question: Does aesthetic appreciation lead to more abstract, value-based thinking about what someone finds important? But it’s becoming increasingly clear to us that it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. We are already finding important boundary conditions of when this indeed occurs, and more work needs to be done to arrive at systematic predictions” she reports. “The big question after that is if whether engaging in a certain type of thinking actually translates into behavior. In other words, do you act on the values that aesthetic experiences bring to mind?”
For Schnall and her team, finding answers to such questions seems more important than ever before.
“People today are, for the most part, tethered to their devices,” she observes. “And we think in very concrete terms when we’re doing something on a screen. It’s becoming much rarer to zone out and just let the mind wander or think of things that don’t involve your own personal concerns or whatever is on your to-do list today. I think there are all kinds of pressures in the world at the moment that distract us from the kind of higher-level thinking that would be beneficial to ourselves and to those around us.”
Based on the so-far promising indications of the preliminary experiments and supported with additional funding from the Templeton Religion Trust, Schnall’s research is moving forward.
“We’re still at the beginning stages of this journey. It’s clear that this is a highly complex and rich area of investigation that requires thorough and careful work to disentangle the different psychological processes in operation,” she says.
With their preliminary paradigms now being refined, substantiated and explored in further studies, Schnall is optimistic that this research, over time, can contribute empirical evidence and new insights to the scholarship of aesthetic cognitivism, namely the idea that aesthetic experiences can have a profound impact on people’s quest to find meaning and purpose in life. Down the line, perhaps it can even give us a rare glimpse at some of the most fundamental questions regarding the nature of the universe, and the role of human beings in it.
Thick and Perceptual Moral Beauty – Ryan P. Doran