Psychology and Empirical Aesthetics

Studying Reading

During reading and scene perception the eyes move in a rapid fashion across lines of text or across an image or a scene. Such rapid eye movements (called saccades) alternate with periods of relative stability (so-called fixations), and it is these latter during which information is picked up. In reading the current words, for example, your eyes will jump from one word to the next – with some words skipped and others fixated more than once. The resulting scan path of eye fixations can be characterized in temporal and spatial parameters: where do we fixate and for how long? These parameters are influenced by the difficulty of a text and the complexity of a scene. When text is more difficult, readers typically need more time to make sense of the information that is accessible at a given fixation. As a result, these fixations are longer. They are also more densely populated around difficult portions of a sentence or around more complex areas of a scene.

In monitoring eye movements, we obtain a relatively unobtrusive picture of online cognitive processes, as overt eye movements are closely correlated with covert cognitive processes. For example, when a reader approaches a piece of visual poetry as a text, this might be reflected in a systematic fixation pattern from the upper left to the lower right part of the display, mimicking reading-direction. When approaching the same display as a visual phenomenon, by contrast, one would not expect such a sequential scanning pattern.

In our project we made use of state-of-the-art eye tracking equipment to investigate how people perceive and understand the verbal and visual components of a poem. The data patterns typically obtained from such experiments can be aggregated into various formats – for example heat maps that give a global reflection of viewing behaviour.

Poetry in Motion

Psychologists are generally interested in the patterns of, and explanations for, human behaviour and experience. By measuring patterns in behaviour we hope to discover regularities that reflect lawful aspects of the functioning of the mind.

One of the systematic aspects of our behaviour is a tendency to approach objects we like and to avoid objects we dislike. This is not surprising in itself and probably reflects an evolutionary mechanism: Animals who reduce their distance to positively valenced objects (such as food, or a mate) and who increase their distance to negatively valenced objects (such as predators) are likely to have an evolutionary advantage over those who do not show such behavioural biases.

Would it be possible to tap into this mechanism to collect implicit aesthetic evaluations? In other words, would observers of art works spontaneously reduce their distance to a piece they like, and increase their distance from a piece they do not like?
To address this question, we aim to measure patterns of approach and avoidance behaviour in response to art work. As one of our methods for doing so we use technologies such as the Polhemus FASTRAK which reports the position in a magnetic field of small sensors that are worn on the body.

We think that the measurement of approach and avoidance, in terms of changes in body posture, is an unobtrusive way of obtaining an implicit aesthetic evaluation of a currently perceived art work and have measured the body postures of our co-researchers in various settings involving aesthetic experiences. The outcomes of these studies are interpreted in the wider context of “embodied cognition” – the idea that our knowledge is grounded in sensory and motor activities.