Viewing abstract art causes notable cognitive changes
Viewing art that doesn't look like anything makes your brain take extra steps to try and get it.
- A new study finds that viewing modern art causes real cognitive changes in the viewer.
- Abstract art causes the viewer to place more psychological distance between themselves and the art than with more typical works.
- Exactly how this works is not yet known.
In what will be taken as a win both for people who think modern art doesn't look like anything and those who say that is the point, a new study suggests that viewing abstract art can cause measurable mental changes in the viewer, which increases their psychological distance to the piece.
Abstract art alters your cognitive state? Kandinsky would be proud to hear it.
Psychological distance is the mental distance you place between yourself and other people, things, times, and events. We tend to view abstract notions as very distant and concrete thoughts as very close. Likewise, events that are occurring tomorrow are often more "real" to us than things happening next year.
As an example of how we all use this, imagine that you've made plans to spend the day go-karting with your friends. If it is a month away, you might focus on the general details like how much fun you'll have. If it is tomorrow, your focus might be on small details like the logistics of getting there. The first event is psychologically and temporally distant, so we tend to view it abstractly; the second case is the opposite.
For this experiment, the researchers gathered 840 subjects to test how the viewing of abstract art related to how psychologically closely or distantly they viewed it.
The test subjects were asked to view artworks defined as purely abstract, having a clearly defined object, or partly abstract with a definable object. They were then asked to imagine that they were going to decide where to place the painting on display. They could either put it in a gallery "around the corner" or "in another state." The date of the showing could either be "tomorrow" or "in a year."
The subjects were substantially more likely to choose to place the abstract works in a distant gallery in the future than to do the same with the more grounded works. This tendency to associate abstract art with faraway places or times, even after controlling for how much people liked the artwork in question, indicates that we tend to place psychological distance between ourselves and abstract art.
Study co-author Daphna Shohamy generalized these findings for Cosmos:
"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."
This study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, points in the same direction as previous investigations into how we interact with abstract art. One 2011 study tracked the eye movements of people viewing representational art and those considering the work of Jackson Pollock and found that people tend to view all of an abstract work as they scour it for meaning as opposed to focusing on small details in a more representational painting.
Exactly how abstract art causes our brain to take a step back when considering it is a subject for further research.
The notion that a work of art must evoke a particular reaction from the viewer is the subject of some debate, though it is unlikely that many of the people advocating for that idea had the findings of this study in mind. While this study won't settle any debates in aesthetics or make a modern art lover out of everybody, it might lead to new understandings of how art affects the viewer and serve as a reminder of how much artwork and beauty influence the mind.
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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