Mind and Body

One type of art can help you see the bigger picture in life – study

"Something as fluid as enjoying art has demonstrable and measurable effects on how our mind works."

Staring into the soothing lines of an image that you can't quite describe is one of the joys of looking at abstract art. It turns out that it's also one of the style's major benefits. New research suggests that abstract art has qualities that can literally change our mindsets, and prompt us to let the minutia of day-to-day life fall away.

Over the course of three experiments, scientists at Columbia University found that abstract art tends to evocative of “psychological distance.” Psychological distance is a way to represent how far away events or objects are from ourselves. For instance, a picnic happening tomorrow is psychologically close, but one that will happen a year in the future is psychologically distant.

Study co-author Daphna Shohamy, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, tells Inverse that psychologically distant moments come to represent concepts rather than details – like the feeling of being with friends at a picnic rather than the minutia of planning a day out. Abstract art helps us tap into those feelings because it shifts our cognitive state away from concrete details, and towards abstract ideas, she explains.

“This means that art has an effect on our general cognitive state, that goes beyond how much we enjoy it, to change the way we perceive events and make decisions,” Shohamy says.

Shohamy and her colleagues' findings were published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Abstract art is evocative of "psychological distance" which allows concepts rather than minutia, to emerge. VINCENZO PINTO / Stringer/Getty Images

Abstract art changes how you think – When you look at a realistic painting, it’s clear (at least at first glance) what you’re actually seeing: you’ll recognize familiar shapes like humans, animals and objects. But when we look at abstract art, the brain has fewer recognizable signposts to tell you exactly what you’re looking at.

In fact, eye tracking and brain imaging indicate that when we look at abstract art, we tend to move our eyes more “globally” around the painting, as opposed to focusing on certain objects. For instance, a 2011 study that analyzed eye movements in response to Jackson Pollock’s fractal paintings found that people tended to move uniformly across the whole canvas.

The authors of this recent paper call this universal gaze pattern an “exploratory strategy.” Essentially, we’re searching for meaning in that painting. The more abstract a painting is, the more onus is put on the viewer to assign “meaning, utility, and value,” the researchers write.

While previous work tells us that we may process abstract art differently, this paper shows abstract art can put us in a whole new state of mind.

The team had 840 Amazon Turk workers view one of 21 different paintings done by four famous abstract artists: Chuck Close, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Piet Mondrian. The paintings fell into three general categories:

  • Paintings with a clearly defined object
  • Paintings with a more abstract, yet still definable object
  • Paintings that were purely abstract

Piet Mondrian's "Farm Near Duivendrecht" is an example of representational painting. Mondrian's "Still Life with Ginger Pot II" is slightly more abstract, whereas his Composition in Blue Gray and Pink, is considered abstract in the study.

Piet Mondrian's "Farm Near Duivendrecht" is an example of representational art used in the study. Wikimedia Commons

The workers were asked to imagine they were art critics placing the painting in an exhibition. They could choose to display the painting “tomorrow” or “in a year.” Then they could choose to display it in a gallery “around the corner” or “in another state.” These time and distance measures were intended to be evocative of the psychological distance people put between themselves and the abstract art.

The more abstract paintings were significantly more likely to be placed in an art opening in the distant future, and in a gallery in another state compared to representational art. After controlling for how much people liked each painting, the relationships between distance and abstraction remained significant.

Shohamy explains that psychological distance can affect how we perceive objects, or events. For example, If you think about a psychologically close picnic, different details will jump out at you compared to when you think of a psychologically distant one.

“The picnic happening tomorrow will be represented by its concrete features: what to eat, which park to go to,” she says. “While the picnic happening in one year will be represented by its more abstract features: how much fun you will have with friends.”

Abstract art can help us tap into those ineffable feelings about events, objects or people because it puts us in the state of mind to do so, the authors suggest.

Abstract art and the brain – Abstract art forces us to explore within ourselves, which can be rewarding. As the authors of a 2014 paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience put it, abstract art “frees our brain from the dominance of reality,” which allows us to access new emotional or cognitive states that are otherwise hidden from us in daily life.

“This process is apparently rewarding as it enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain,” the authors continue.

This study can’t quite explain how abstraction helps us tap into “inner territories” of the brain. But it lays groundwork by demonstrating that there are clear differences in the way the brain interprets abstract art compared with representational art and draws connections to the way abstract art changes our state of mind. That said, they will have to solidify that connection using brain imaging studies.

For now, Shohamy explains that her study can do more than simply tell us why we like abstraction: We really do see abstract objects differently, and perhaps by looking at those abstract objects we start to see undefinable feelings in our own lives with clarity.

“The empirical demonstration of the effect of abstract art on our cognitive state makes it clear that this enjoyment we all feel is just part of the story,” she says. “We show that something as fluid as enjoying art has demonstrable and measurable effects on how our mind works.”

Abstract: Does abstract art evoke a different cognitive state than figurative art? To address this question empirically, we bridged art theory and cognitive research and designed an experiment leveraging construal level theory (CLT). CLT is based on experimental data showing that psychologically distant events (i.e., occurring farther away in space or time) are represented more abstractly than closer events. We measured construal level elicited by abstract vs. representational art and asked subjects to assign abstract/repre- sentational paintings by the same artist to a situation that was temporally/spatially near or distant. Across three experiments, we found that abstract paintings were assigned to the distant situation significantly more often than representational paintings, indicating that abstract art was evocative of greater psychological distance. Our data demonstrate that different levels of artistic abstraction evoke different levels of mental abstraction and suggest that CLT provides an empirical approach to the analysis of cognitive states evoked by different levels of artistic abstraction.
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