Kutter Callaway, Baylor University

Measuring Transcendence: IRL

What can we know about how art provokes spiritual experiences?

Does it matter if art is viewed in person or digitally?

Does it matter if you experience the art in a coffee shop or a church?

Do these experiences correlate with how altruistic we are?

Grant Title
Measuring the (Im)Measurable in Real Life
Legal Organization
Baylor University
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 June 2022
End Date: 30 May 2025
Grant Amount
Area of Focus
Art Seeking Understanding

Do you remember the last time a work of art changed you? Usually, these moments take you by surprise. You’re walking through the gallery, the echo of footsteps and hushed voices around you. You turn a corner, and something hanging from the wall takes your breath away. A sense of connection to something bigger comes over you—something transcendent.

Humanities scholars theorize about these moments, their meaning, and purpose, emphasizing their subjective nature. But Dr. Kutter Callaway—a dual Ph.D. holder in both the humanities and experimental psychology—is adding some empirical pieces to this aesthetic puzzle.


My original line of research was in theology and culture. I found that myself and others were making claims that were empirical, or at least empirically falsifiable. But we didn't really have the tools to test them.
Dr. Kutter Callaway

Now, Dr. Callaway—professor at Fuller Graduate Schools—and his interdisciplinary team at Baylor University, have the tools and are using them in clever new ways. They’re building on a pilot study, conducted online, to explore how different spaces and types of media impact our spirituality. They’re creating a body of research that examines transformative experiences with art in a way that’s been incredibly under-researched so far.

Black Halos in Real Life

The first research phase centers on an in-person gallery exhibit. A multi-media collection, called “Black Halos” by Dea Jenkins, is displayed in a gallery. The experiment is designed around Jenkins’ thoughtful work, which explores black identity in the context of social events, both present and historical.

The exhibit invites its audience to step into another perspective and see connections between social events and personal identity, using photography, music, and poetry. But does it matter if you’re experiencing it in a physical space? Dr. Callaway likes to ask the question this way:

Does matter matter? Does being [in the gallery] matter? The space is one part of the research question we're asking. The next question is, what is it like to experience the same installation in the digital world?
Dr. Kutter Callaway

In Dr. Callaway’s project, they are looking at these measures before and after the in-person gallery exhibit and comparing those results with participants who experience “Black Halos” through a virtual tour online.

To Art is Human

But why even ask these questions? Or as Dr. Callaway might say, “Why does it matter if matter matters?”

The connection between art and spirituality is primal. Yet, a shockingly small amount of research has examined this overlap empirically.

Dr. Callaway’s team is also looking at another dimension adjacent to self-transcendent emotions. “Pro-social attitudes and behaviors” are a category of measurement in psychology often related to religion and spirituality. Many spiritual or religious practices correlate to pro-sociality, and many people consider their social values or attitudes as part of their spiritual life. Examples include generosity, hospitality, and cooperation.

In the first phase of research via the “Black Halos” exhibit, participants are offered an opportunity to donate after participating in their survey, to see if the art experience affects generosity.

Virtual Church, Virtual Steeple…

Using virtual reality headsets is becoming a popular practice in psychology studies. Study participants get an immersive experience that feels real, but many other variables that could complicate outcomes can be controlled. With this new technology, Dr. Callaway saw an opportunity to test if the environment plays a part in spiritual experiences with art, which is the focus of his second phase of research.

We've worked with the team to design this immersive context where pictures that earlier participants [from the pilot study] just saw on their computer screen are now housed in a virtual museum, coffee house, church, or warehouse. And part of what we're going to ask there is, does the context of viewing these pieces change whether or not you attribute some spiritual or transcendent kind of outcome?
Dr. Kutter Callaway

Amazing Grace Four Ways

Another way Dr. Callaway is combining scales is through a third phase of his research, partnered with the “Black Gospel Archive & Listening Center” at Baylor. Participants will have immersive experiences with different versions of “Amazing Grace”—famous renditions by two singers, one black and one white. Some participants will be informed of biographical and historical facts about the singers before listening, and others will not.

People consistently experience awe hearing music in this way, especially in this ideal space at the Listening Center. But Dr. Callaway and his team at Baylor will have an interesting opportunity to measure any correlations between spiritual states and prosocial attitudes like tribal in-group/out-group mindsets and racial biases.

A Gift for the Future of Psychological Research

By addressing this research gap, Dr. Callaway’s team will establish a needed model for psychologists to do future work in this area. This experimental “template” will allow broader networks of collaborative research to flourish in years to come.

This project will also help the domains of spiritual and artistic knowledge to be more carefully defined, revealing that they clearly can be studied by the sciences, a fact that’s been in dispute in the past. The project will also help form coherent connections between the humanities and social sciences.

The social sciences now have robust technology for measuring the psychological effects of images. Likewise, spiritual experiences have signature measures in psychology, as mentioned above (awe, gratitude, and pro-social attitudes). Dr. Callaway’s project ambitiously establishes a paradigm for combining these accepted methods.

Art for the Good of the World

Artists and art lovers alike intuit that art has a positive impact on the world. Dr. Callaway is cautiously optimistic:

“One of the things I think is true is that it is possible to shift the way that people think, imagine, and behave in the world, in light of an artistic encounter. It also might be otherwise, or it might be complicated, or it might depend on the person.

“And so one of the things that we think we’ll find is that there will be at least some measure, some degree of change, in basic in-group/out-group attitudes, based on experiencing art, to your in-group identity, and how that compares to the artist and then the theme of the art. That’s my hope.”

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