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Q&A: Wolfgang Tschacher, psychologist, on how we appreciate art

Q&A: Wolfgang Tschacher, psychologist, on how we appreciate art

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Think you need to be an art expert to fully appreciate art? A study of the heart rates of museum-goers proves that notion wrong.

We might think art experts and artists have a leg up on art appreciation that rewards them with a deeper enjoyment of art. But it turns out art literacy makes little difference in how much one appreciates art works. This was one finding from a recent study done with nearly 600 museum visitors that ranged from art experts to regular members of the public who may have only had limited engagement with art.

Researchers had volunteers wear a glove that not only tracked their movement through a Swiss art museum but also measured their heart rate and galvanic skin response (a measurement of sweat due to arousal) as they viewed individual pieces. And these measurements were then compared with survey responses—gathered after the visitors left the exhibition—that described how much they enjoyed different pieces within the exhibition.

Twenty researchers led by Martin Trondle, a professor of arts management at Zeppelin University, worked on the project that took place at the Kunstmuseum St Gallen.

SmartPlanet caught up with one member of Trondle’s team, Wolfgang Tschacher, professor of psychotherapy at the University Hospital of Psychiatry in Bern, Switzerland, to find out more about the study and its implications for art museums.

SmartPlanet: So in this study I found two major findings most interesting:  1) How art-literate museum goers are makes little difference in how they engage with exhibits and 2) Solitary visitors, as opposed to pairs or groups, spend a lot more time looking at art and experience more emotions when viewing pieces.

Wolfgang Tschacher: It’s a big issue in the arts world what your background has to be (or your so-called “art affinity” is) in order to be able to understand art. So we just measured it. We developed an instrument to measure physiological reactions when tourists and art experts view art. We also measured behavior such as length of stay in front of the artwork, or length of stay inside the exhibition.

And what we found is really astonishing. We did find that the more art-refined the visitors are, the more they thought they’d like the unusual art, the unusual media, and not necessarily paintings. The more art-refined visitors also said that experiencing the beauty of the art is not important at all.  But when they were actually in front of a painting their reaction was different.

What happened?

After the exhibition when we asked them what pieces they liked, they actually did like the aesthetic aspects, or beauty of the art. And they liked it much more than they had expected.

Interesting. I understand from your study that when art experts were actually in the museum they spent less time with the paintings, but then you say after the fact those were the pieces they enjoyed the most.

Yes, they were emotionally moved by the paintings.

How do you know this?

We measured physiology with an electronic glove. Everything was digitally stored so we know exactly how people moved through the exhibition and what their physiological reactions [heart rate and galvanic skin response] were. With respect to these biological measurements there was virtually no difference in the responses of those with art affinity [art experts] and those with little art experience.

And what about this idea of solitary visitors spending more time looking at art?

Yes. We found that solitary visitors gain more from the exhibition. They go into the art deeper and they’re more involved emotionally than visitors who are with company. If you want to experience the art, you should go alone. But maybe that’s a truism. I don’t know.

What else surprised you about the findings?

I was really fascinated by the fact that we could find an association between physiological recordings and how much people liked the artworks. Because before we did the project I thought, 'Could physiology, which is such a peripheral signal, really tell us something about the liking of artifacts?' I was quite pessimistic in the beginning.

But after going through the data I saw a clear connection between aesthetic liking, which we got from the questionnaires we gave after the visit, and physiology.

Can you tell us exactly what you found?

One measurement we took is heart rate variability and it was remarkably connected to the aesthetic appreciation of the art. There was also a relationship between surprise, humor and the art. The more you’re surprised by an artwork and if you think it’s humorous, then this is also positively associated to heart rate variability. I didn’t expect that finding.

Can you explain what heart rate variability is? Because as I understand it, it is different from just heart rate.

Heart rate variability has been found repeatedly in many different contexts and it might relate, for example, to stress. So you have less heart rate variability when you’re stressed. And people who are more open to new experiences tend to have higher heart rate variability. And persons after cardiac disease have lower heart rate variability. We measured the heart rate variability right at the moment when people were in front of the artworks. We measured it in relation exactly to the artwork that they later assessed using a questionnaire, a direct questionnaire survey. The connection between the physiology and the survey was impressive. It’s beyond doubt that there is a connection between the two. I like that finding especially. That was the one that I was really happy about.

Do you think the study has any implications for museums?

I think we have shown that it’s a deep experience that occurs in museums, an embodied experience, and it literally moves their bodies and the activity of the heart.

I don’t think museums should be considered a social temple where people congregate and move through the exhibition in groups. It might be more a place of contemplation. But this is my subjective interpretation of what we found.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure