Measuring aesthetic impressions

Measuring aesthetic impressions: Mission impossible or artful science

M. Dorothee Augustin and Johan Wagemans

Although its roots go back to the founding fathers of experimental psychology (e.g., Fechner), empirical aesthetics can still be considered a relatively young science. This entails great possibilities and scientific freedom but also a need for truly fundamental research, especially regarding methodological issues. In our view, one of the most important questions is how to validly and reliably measure aesthetic impressions. Standardised measures are rare, and many aspects that make aesthetics such a fascinating field of study, such as the complexity of aesthetic experiences or the variety of aesthetic materials, make the search for adequate measures far from trivial. The speakers of this symposium illuminate the issue of measuring aesthetic impressions from a variety of different angles, including different materials (visual art, music, design) and different methodological approaches (verbal measures, eye-movement recordings, brain correlates, posturography). An appropriate choice from these possibilities certainly requires an artful approach. What problems do researchers encounter when trying to measure aesthetic impressions, which possibilities do different measures offer, and what could be promising lines for further development? The symposium aims to gather state-of-the-art methodological knowledge in aesthetics and to launch new ideas for a field that offers serious scientific challenges but also great pleasure.

Less unspeakable than said? Developing a verbal measure to assess aesthetic impressions of visual art

M. Dorothee Augustin

A difficulty for research on aesthetic impressions of visual art does not only lie in the lack of standardized measures, but also in an uncertainty of what to measure at all. Developing a questionnaire to assess aesthetic impressions of visual art seems promising, because verbal measures are relatively easy to apply and yield important insights about what characterizes aesthetic experiences for the viewer. My colleagues and I conducted a series of five studies that focused on the following questions: How do people describe their aesthetic impressions of visual art, which general dimensions of experience does this word usage point to, and which items may be most suitable to assess each of these dimensions? Starting from free naming of words the studies included ratings of artworks in a museum as well as online ratings, in different samples and with a variety of artistic materials. Overall, four dimensions seem to be of particular importance for aesthetic experiences of visual art: (in)comprehensibility, originality, emotiveness and pleasingness, but their exact weight and meaning can vary between different artworks and participant samples. I will describe the project in detail and discuss what differences among materials and samples may mean for the assessment of aesthetic impressions.

Measuring aesthetic impressions in an implicit way

Claus-Christian Carbon

Measurement of aesthetic impressions is typically realized using explicit methods, e.g. by asking people for their feelings or thoughts or by explicitly trying to get notion of their understanding of artworks. Explicit measures, as compared to implicit ones, do definitely have the advantage that they allow capturing highly complex cognitive processes like multidimensional emotional reactions or fine-graded levels of understanding. These measures, however, are also prone to cognitive penetration, which is particularly problematic concerning the domain of art where effects of social desirability may very probably occur. Consequently, there is clear need for less penetrable measures working on an implicit way that can at the same time test more complex hypotheses. The present paper discusses several implicit measures, for instance obtained a) by similarity tasks in which aesthetic material varies on several aesthetically relevant dimensions and participants have to rate or arrange material according to psychological similarity [Augustin et al, 2008, Acta Psychologica, 128(1), 127-138; Imhof et al, 2010, Perception, 39(S), 103-103], and b) by multidimensional association tasks (md-IAT) [Gattol et al, 2011, PLoS ONE, 6(1), e15849] that extend the IAT towards a multidimensional perspective enabling complex implicit profiles of artworks to be tested.

See-volution: A large scale public investigation of aesthetic preferences

Tim Holmes, Hayley Thair, Elina Nikolaidou, Alice Lowenhoff, Jade Jackson and Johannes Zanker

Objectively measuring aesthetic preference is notoriously difficult due to the vast individual differences in the aesthetic experience. Eye-movements offer a potential source for such a measure, and there is evidence to support a correlation between patterns of eye-movements and aesthetic preference (Holmes & Zanker, i-Perception, 2012). Here we use those eye-movements as the fitness measure in a Gaze Driven Evolutionary Algorithm (GDEA) (Holmes & Zanker, Proceedings of GECCO, 2008, 1531-1538) to explore individual preferences in a complex design space. During a 3 month installation at the London Science Museum, 1400 participants were invited to look at initially random images of cartoon dinosaurs. 16 dinosaurs were presented 4 at a time for between 2500ms and 5000ms for each of 10 generations, resulting in a converged design space for each participant. Strength of preference for each dinosaur was checked using an explicit 2-alternate forced choice paradigm, and correlated positively with the screen presentation times used in the evolutionary algorithm. Age and gender related effects in both colour and shape were also identified. Future directions and potential applications for the methodology in experiment aesthetics, assistive technology and developmental psychology will be discussed. Funded by British Academy Small Grant - SG111199.

Posturographic and subjective visual vertical tests conducted before and after visiting Richard Serra's Promenade, Monumenta 2008, at Grand Palais, Paris

Zoi Kapoula

Body sway while maintaining upright quiet stance reflects an active process of balance based on integration of visual, vestibular gravity, somatosensory and proprioceptive inputs. Serra's exhibition can be conceived as a study in the vertical and longitudinal as it showcased 5 steel, towering rectangular solids all of which were slightly inclined (1.69°); measuring 17mx4mx0.33m, and weighing 75 tons each. With a posturography device we measured body sway of 23 visitors (26.1±6.1 years-old) before and after promenade around the sculptures. Facing the sculptures produced an immediate but subtle effect: the power spectrum of lateral body sway decreased relative to a baseline condition (wavelet analysis, Px dropped from 63±6.5 mm2x106 to 61±5.9, p<0.004). Immediately following the promenade, lateral body sway sensu stricto did itself decrease (SDx from 3.5±2.5 mm to 2.5±1.7, p<0.003). Fourteen additional visitors (29.5±9 years) were asked to adjust a luminous line in complete darkness in accordance with what they consider to be earth vertical. Promenade through Serra's sculptures reduced the error on the vertical test from 1.1±0.6 to 0.8±0.5°, p=0.01. We attribute both these effects to exhibition's sculpted environment acting as physiologic 'training ground' improving the sense of visual perspective, equilibrium and gravity.

Measuring aesthetic experience: A view from neuroaesthetics

Marcos Nadal

Our knowledge of the neural processes underlying aesthetic experience has grown considerably in the last decade. Neuropsychological and neuroimaging studies have measured the impact of brain injuries and degenerative diseases on aesthetic production and appreciation, and neural activity in diverse brain regions during aesthetic experiences. The limited coincidence among the results of the different studies, however, suggests that they might not have been measuring the same phenomenon. From a neurobiological perspective, aesthetic experience cannot be considered a single response. Rather, it is the result of several responses in different brain regions, related with the processing of diverse sensory, conceptual and contextual aspects. Unless neuroimaging and neuropsychological studies are explicitly designed to measure some of these component processes specifically, researchers cannot be sure what exactly was measured in their study. In this contribution I will suggest strategies to help us increase measurement precision in neuropsychological and neuroimaging studies of aesthetic experience.