Do You Like ‘Dogs Playing Poker’? Science Would Like to Know Why

Posted July 8, 2018 6:20 p.m. EDT

If you have ever wondered whether the title on a work of abstract art — say “Blue No. 2” — influences how you feel about it, you’ll be intrigued by a new study from the University of Pittsburgh. Researchers there found that people prefer works with straightforward titles like “Curved Lines” or “Dots of Color” to those with figurative titles like “Ice Dancing” or “Sabotage.”

Another study released last month by psychologists at Boston College found that a big reason people favor an artist’s work over an identical copy is their belief that some essence of the artist is left behind in the original.

“Philosophers have grappled with questions about the arts for centuries, and lay people have puzzled about them too,” Ellen Winner, a Boston College professor who led the study there, said. “Now, psychologists have begun to explore these same questions and have made many fascinating discoveries.”

The mysteries of the aesthetic response, and the creative impulse, have become a burgeoning area of inquiry for scientific researchers across many disciplines. They hope quantifiable data and statistical analysis can help explain matters that some consider ineffable — like why we paint or sing, or why we naturally favor Van Gogh’s sunflowers over the landscapes we encounter in budget hotel rooms.

Nearly two dozen research labs across the United States are studying aesthetics — examining not just the visual arts but domains like music, literature and performance — and pumping out scientific papers in disciplines that include anthropology, neuroscience and biology.

But, at its core, much of the research in this growing field of “experimental aesthetics” boils down to efforts to solve two age-old enigmas: What is art and why do we like what we like?

“It’s an exciting field because we have started to figure out how to use the best tools of science to measure things we did not think were measurable,” said Thalia Goldstein, editor of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, a quarterly journal of the American Psychological Association. “We want to build a research base science can draw on.”

For years, the journal has been filled with peer-reviewed articles with arcane titles like “An Empirical Study on the Healing Nature of Mandalas,” or “The Effects of Cognitive Load on Judgments of Titled Visual Art,” or “A Qualitative Case Study of the Impact of Environmental and Personal Factors on Prominent Turkish Writers.” In June, researchers at the University of London tackled the riddle of machine-made art in a paper, “Putting the Art in Artificial: Aesthetic Responses to Computer-Generated Art.”

They found that while people tend to disdain paintings they know are generated artificially, they have a soft spot for those works when they see them being made by a robot with an arm.

The researchers concluded that including a humanlike robot in the art-making process “may indeed represent the final frontier for the true acceptance” of works created by artificial intelligence.

While some studies are born of scholarly curiosity, others are aimed at discovering medical and educational applications based on how art affects the body and brain.

The National Endowment for the Arts is helping fund research into the potential therapeutic benefits of art “in treating a disease or disorder, or in improving symptoms for a chronic disease, disorder or health condition.” One specific question: “How does a dosage — frequency, duration, or intensity — of creative arts therapy relate to individual or program-level outcomes?”

A $3 million grant last year from the endowment to the Pentagon’s Military Arts Healing Network helped fund a study to determine whether having service members decorate blank plaster masks can help with diagnosing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Preliminary findings suggest the masks offer clues to the psychological states of soldiers and veterans otherwise reluctant to report symptoms because of social stigma.

“We all want to raise the quality of evidence in this space,” said Sunil Iyengar, director of the NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis.

Another study by Drexel University in Philadelphia offers hope that art therapy can have physiological benefits. Researchers determined that 45 minutes spent on art projects “resulted in a statistically significant lowering of cortisol levels,” a hormonal marker of stress, measured in before-and-after saliva samples from participants.

The organization whose members initiated much of this research, the Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, is a unit of the American Psychological Association that was established in 1945. Its membership has grown consistently over the years and stands at about 500.

A second organization that promotes similar research, the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, includes not only psychologists but philosophers, sociologists and neuroscientists. Each group publishes a research journal and both will hold conventions in August.

Winner’s team at Boston College published its study, “Essentialist Beliefs in Aesthetic Judgments of Duplicate Artworks,” in the society’s journal in June. The research was designed to explore why people come to devalue pieces they had once revered after finding out that the works were not actually created by the artist.

The study, conducted by Winner and two colleagues, Nathaniel Rabb and Hiram Brownell, was built around an experiment that featured identical images of the same artwork, presented side by side.

The subjects were told both works had the same market value to eliminate concerns that money might affect the aesthetic judgments. They were told both images were sanctioned by the artist, to alleviate any ethical worries. In one part of the experiment, the subjects were told that the image on the left had been made by the artist, but the image on the right by the artist’s assistant.

Which did they prefer?

The viewers strongly favored the image said to have been made by the artist, even though its twin was in all respects identical.

Their conclusion: “While we may dislike forgeries due to their immorality and worthlessness on the market, we also prefer originals for another reason: We like to look at original works that we know were made by the artist and this is because it makes us feel like we are communing with the artist’s mind, soul, heart and essence.” Naturally, this idea of stuffing art into a test tube has its skeptics. In a 2017 article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Alexis D.J. Makin, a psychologist at of the University of Liverpool, England, cast doubt on the efficacy of studying responses to art in a clinical setting.

“It is virtually impossible to evoke intense emotions like aesthetic rapture in the lab on repeated trials with well-controlled stimuli because aesthetic emotions are too fleeting and idiosyncratic,” he wrote, adding: “We are like scientists who would love to measure a very rare whirlpool in a chaotic system, but cannot reliably recreate it in an artificial fluid tank.”

Winner, whose book, “How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration,” will be published this summer, said she has heard that criticism before and discounts it.

“If psychology is the study of human behavior,” she asked, “how can we leave out something as fundamentally human as the arts?