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Visual art evokes many feelings and emotions

The universal appeal of art and its ability to evoke a range of emotions has long captivated audiences and artists alike. But despite its importance in human culture, the underlying mechanisms that drive our emotional responses to art have remained largely unexplored. 

Now, a groundbreaking study from researchers at the University of Turku and Aalto University sheds new light on how viewing visual art affects our emotions and offers potential applications for mental health rehabilitation and care.

The study, which included a diverse sample of 1,186 participants from various countries, involved subjects viewing and assessing over 300 different artworks. The participants’ eye movements were recorded as they viewed the art and they were asked to describe the feelings and emotions evoked by each piece. The study employed a combination of online surveys and laboratory-based eye movement recordings to gather data.

“Viewing the art evoked many different kinds of feelings and emotions in people. Even though many of the pieces handled sad or scary topics, the emotions that the people experienced were mainly positive,” said study lead author Professor Lauri Nummenmaa from the Turku PET Centre at the University of Turku.

Intriguingly, the researchers found a correlation between the strength of the subject’s bodily sensations and the intensity of the emotions they experienced, suggesting that our bodies play a crucial role in the aesthetic experience.

Study co-author Riitta Hari from Aalto University explained that human figures in the artworks were the most interesting subjects and received the most attention from viewers. “People have a tendency to empathize with each other’s emotions, and this is probably also the case when we view human figures in art,” said Hari. 

This empathetic response to human emotions in art may occur through a process known as “mirroring,” where the emotions portrayed in the artwork are absorbed by the viewer, often without conscious awareness.

The findings of this study indicate that the emotions and bodily sensations evoked by art can have a profound impact on our overall experience of it. “Bodily sensations can draw people to art: art evokes feelings in the body, and such stimulation of the body’s pleasure centers feels pleasant to the viewer,” said Professor Nummenmaa. 

These insights open up exciting possibilities for leveraging the emotional power of art in mental health rehabilitation and care settings, where it could provide a valuable tool for emotional expression and healing.

One of the most popular theories explaining the emotional impact of art on humans is the concept of emotional resonance or aesthetic resonance. This theory suggests that when people encounter a work of art, they experience an emotional response as a result of a connection or resonance with the piece. The connection can be based on various factors, such as personal experiences, cultural context, or innate human tendencies.

A key aspect of emotional resonance is the idea of empathy and our ability to recognize and relate to the emotions of others. When we view art that depicts human figures, emotions, or situations, we tend to empathize with the subjects and experience emotions similar to those being portrayed. This empathetic response can be triggered by the brain’s mirror neuron system, which allows us to understand and share the emotions of others by simulating their experiences internally.

Another component of the emotional impact of art is the role of our cognitive and emotional processing systems. Art can activate various cognitive and emotional processes, such as memory, perception, imagination, and evaluation. These processes can trigger emotional responses, even when the artwork is abstract or non-representational. For instance, certain colors, shapes, or patterns may evoke specific emotions or memories, leading to an emotional reaction to the artwork.

Furthermore, art can serve as a form of communication and self-expression, allowing artists to convey their emotions, thoughts, and ideas to the audience. This shared emotional experience can create a connection between the viewer and the artist, further enhancing the emotional impact of the artwork.

In summary, the emotional impact of art on humans can be attributed to a combination of factors, including emotional resonance, empathy, cognitive and emotional processing, and the communicative power of art. These factors work together to create a unique and personal emotional experience for each individual who encounters a work of art.

The research is published in the journal Cognition & Emotion.

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