Study: Art transcends vision, unleashes multisensory embodied experience

LONDON: A recent study published in peer-reviewed scientific journal Cognition and Emotion threw light on the complex interplay between art, emotions and bodily sensations.

According to the Scientific American, the researchers have unveiled that the way our bodies react to art is not just a passive response, but an active way to perceive “art” in the first place.

The media reports said that a team of scientists have discovered that the secret to the disparate reactions might “already lie” within our bodies.

As per the reports, the study, involving 1,186 participants and 336 different visual art pieces, aimed to explore the relationship between emotional engagement with art and the physical sensations experienced while viewing it.

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In a striking revelation, the study was able to establish a direct correlation between the intensity of emotional responses triggered by an artwork and the magnitude of bodily sensations reported during its observation. Through subjective reports, participants conveyed their emotions, while also marking on a virtual human figure where and how they felt the associated physical sensations. Additionally, eye-tracking technology and participant surveys were utilised to gauge the paintings’ appeal and their categorisation as art, reported by the media.

It was revealed that the potency of bodily sensations resonated with both the strength of emotional engagement and the assessment of a piece as art. The sensations were most distinct when participants experienced empathy, the most frequently reported positive emotion, and when they described their emotions as “touching” and “moving.”

Furthermore, even the negative emotions also provided insights, with reports of “sadness” being intertwined with “touching” and “moving” experiences, which in turn influenced a participant’s labeling of a work as art.

Meanwhile, Lauri Nummenmaa, lead author of the study and researcher at the University of Turku in Finland, drew parallels between the sensation of thrill in a haunted house and the effect of art on our emotions.

“Art likely exploits similar mechanisms for making us feel good. It activates our autonomic nervous system, and in the peace and quiet of an art gallery this increased bodily activity feels good to us,” said Nummenmaa.

The study also indicated that the fusion of emotional and bodily responses was most profound when artworks depicted people, aligning with the theory that observing others’ actions can trigger sensorimotor mirroring effects.

While the research relied on subjective accounts and didn’t delve into objective physiological changes, it strongly implied that the perception of art was deeply intertwined with the awareness of our body’s internal state. In essence, art may have the power to profoundly affect our perception, embedding itself beneath the skin.

Meanwhile, neuroscientist Jennifer MacCormack, who leads the Affect & Interoception Lab at the University of Virginia, elaborated on the study’s implications and said that certain forms of art could subtly shift our attention to bodily sensations, particularly within specific regions like the chest or heart.

MacCormack said this could influence the extent to which we incorporate our bodies into the emotional experience.

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