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What You See When You Look At Abstract Art

A new study tracked the eye movements of people looking at paintings.

How do people see images? It’s a deceptively simple question that’s been historically difficult to study. But over the past five years, eye-tracking hardware startups have made it easier and cheaper to track eye movements, leading to new research about how we see.

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Take a new paper from Nicole Thomas, an experimental psychologist at James Cook University in Australia. Thomas uses eye tracking and other methods to investigate how we look–or as she puts it, “how do we decide what we pay attention to, and what we choose to ignore?” In a study published in Acta Psychologica, Thomas and coauthor Ali Simpson used an eye tracker made by the Sweden-based startup Tobii to understand how people look at abstract art–and how personality traits might influence how you see. Unlike specific kinds of art like portraits or landscapes, which our eyes might tend to view in specific ways, abstract paintings offer a kind of blank slate for observing how we see.

[Image: courtesy Dr. Nicole Thomas]

After evaluating their participants’ personality traits, Thomas showed them a series of abstract paintings sourced from Google Images, tracking their eye movements with Tobii’s 17-inch monitors. In general, people tended to focus their eyes on the upper-right-hand area of the art, and move in clockwise patterns to the rest of the painting.

What could help explain the right-hand bias? For one thing, the right hemisphere is important for emotional processing and visuospatial thinking, they explain. “Artwork is inherently emotional and the emotional reactions that are elicited by abstract artwork might lead participants to focus their attention within the upper-right quadrant to better engage emotional processing,” the duo writes. But personality traits also played a role: People who tended toward neuroticism spent more time on the left side of each painting, which might indicate that they tend to “fail to efficiently disengage their attention from this side” when scanning a painting in that clockwise motion.

[Image: courtesy Dr. Nicole Thomas]

It’s an exploratory study of a nascent technology, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating look at the way eye-tracking sheds light on aspects of art that have been impenetrable for centuries. Historians and critics may have these kinds of quantitative tools at their fingertips in the near future. “I absolutely think there could be implications for people studying art, in that two art students might come to different conclusions about the same piece of artwork as a result of how they look at the [painting] as well as their own personality,” Thomas says. For now, she says she’s considering continuing what began as a side project–and finding out whether manipulating the way a person scans a particular painting could change their preferences.

[Image: courtesy Dr. Nicole Thomas]

Eye-tracking research is already relatively common among usability experts attempting to unlock what makes a particular type of web or app design easier to use or more attractive to users. One recent eye-tracking study from Nielsen Norman Group found that people spend 80% of their time on the left-hand side of websites, for instance, and marketing and packaging designers have used the same technology to study how consumers choose products off a shelf.

At the same time, eye-tracking isn’t a silver bullet, and as always, correlation is not causation. It’s a tool that can augment our understanding of sight, not explain it entirely. In short, it’s still early days for such research, but over the next few years we stand to learn much more about why we love–or hate–certain pieces of art and design.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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