We’ve all been struck before by works of art. It could have been a painting at the National Gallery, or maybe a song coming out of a window on a warm night. We appreciate the beauty, but it’s more than that. Our favourite pieces of art resonate in a way that’s strangely familiar and yet there’s always something intangible that keeps us coming back. You might think that analyzing such a phenomenon would take the fun out of it. Jim Davies disagrees. Jim is a professor at the Cognitive Science at Carleton University, and the Director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory. He’s spent his career exploring why we find things compelling, from art to religion and from sports to superstition. Apt613 asked him to share his findings on the appeal of art.
Apt613: How did you first become interested in studying the creative process?
Jim Davies: I’ve always been an artist of various kinds, dabbling in drawing, theater, dance, and writing. There’s a lot of folk wisdom associated with how to make good art, and as I studied to become a scientist I wondered if the scientific process could be applied to art. Do the recommendations that art teachers make really work? When I finally got a chance to look, I found that in the last 25 years there has been an enormous flourishing of scientific studies looking at the psychology of art. I summarized this work in my 2014 book Riveted, which is all about why we find art, sports, and religion interesting.
Why do we love certain works of art, and hate others? Is this a purely subjective experience?
We tend to focus on what one person likes versus another person, but broadly speaking we like similar things. For example, almost everybody prefers music to random noises, landscape pictures showing a distant view rather than a stone wall, and stories with conflict over stories where there isn’t any. Remember that when we talk about liking this art versus that art, we’re usually looking at works that have already passed some threshold of human interest to even be classified as “art” at all.
That said, there are personality traits that can predict who will like what. People who are more open to experience tend to like jazz more, for instance. And certainly culture has a huge effect on artistic preferences, from music, to movies, to the culinary arts.
From your research, what characteristics does a piece of compelling art have?
When you look across the kind of art that people go for, we find some similarities: for one thing, art tends to be about people. Most paintings feature people, people tend to like music that has a sung portion and has lyrics about people, especially love. We also like repeating patterns, be it a repeating colour in a painting, or a riff in a song, or a theme in a movie. At the same time, too much pattern bores us. If we feel we completely understand the work of art, our minds want to move on.
When you look across the kind of art that people go for, we find some similarities: for one thing, art tends to be about people.
What’s going on in our brains when we see a piece of art that moves us?
Regarding pattern and incongruity, pattern makes us feel pleasure, like the jolt of joy you get when you solve a puzzle. This is probably an activation of the opioid system. Incongruity gives you curiosity to learn more, which means activation of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of drive. This is why paintings often have some, but not too much, symmetry. There’s a sweet spot.
When we observe people in art, and conflict in drama (movies, novels, and so on), we activate the same parts of our brain to understand what’s happening as we do when observing social conflict in real life. As social animals, we evolved to find this stuff important. We pay attention to it in real life, and so we pay attention to it in film and television too. A lot of art “works” because it corresponds to things we found important in our ancestral environment, on the plains of Africa long ago.
What’s a piece of art that you find most compelling? Why?
My favourite movie is Kiki’s Delivery Service. It’s a gorgeous animated film about a little girl struggling with self-doubt: losing your mojo and finding the motivation to get it back. It hits the heart hard because it relates to situations most of us will encounter—or fear we will encounter—at some point in our lives. The combination of visual splendor, social support, and inner conflict makes for a wonderful experience.
What are some unanswered questions on creativity that you’d like to explore?
Right now I’ve got a couple of creativity studies happening. One, with my former student Maryanna Guillet, is looking at creature design, and seeing if people can be more creative if they know about features that rarely change. For example, when we look at the monsters people create (for, say, games or movies), the colour of the creature is highly variable, but the number of eyes isn’t: most have just two, and in the place we’d expect. Can we get people to make more creative monsters if we ask them to use new values for attributes that often have the same value (e.g., “2” for the attribute “number of eyes”, or having eyes somewhere else)?
I’m also running a study with my student Shermin Kilicaslan, which investigates whether looking at pictures of cute things reduces your creativity. The idea is that creativity involves broad, divergent thinking, and certain kinds of stimuli, like cute or sexual stimuli, increase focus and reduces divergence. So we’re looking to see if looking at pictures of cute animals makes you less creative. It would be an unintuitive, interesting result!
For more from Jim Davies, visit his website.