Differences in cognitive processing when appreciating figurative and abstract art can be detected by integrating EEG and eye-tracking data

Sarune Baceviciute, Luis Emilio Bruni, Paolo Burelli, Andreas Wulff-Jensen

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In the context of a project assessing the effects of “Arts in Hospitals” the present study aimed at exploring the fruitfulness of integrating psychophysiological methods to ethnographic approaches. We assess whether significant differences can be detected in cognitive processing when attending figurative or abstract art that has been manifestly reported as pleasant or unpleasant by the subject. The experiment measures the absolute power of different EEG frequency bands (i.e. delta, theta, alpha, beta & gamma) in two experimental conditions: i) abstract paintings and ii) figurative paintings. Eye-tracking and self-report data were gathered simultaneously. Each condition included 20 paintings (total of 40), which were pre-selected and assigned to each condition following a rigorous procedure involving an external contributor. A total of 30 non-artist participants (10 females, average age 24.6 (s=4.6)) were recruited for the study. Every test session lasted around 90 minutes (including preparation). Band power analysis for the five investigated frequency bands revealed that largest significant differences between the two conditions were apparent in Theta, Alpha and Beta activations. Based on the results and existing tendencies in the EEG literature, it can be postulated that figurative art viewing involves higher mental engagement, more demanding information retrieval and memory-related cognitive processes than abstract art. Therefore, it could seem to be counter-intuitive the fact that abstract art - with a lesser demand in cognitive load - isgenerally considered to be anxiety-provoking by virtue of its alleged ambiguity (e.g. the emotional congruence theory), independently of its aesthetic effects on particular subjects.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventConference of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics - University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria
Duration: 29 Aug 20161 Sep 2016
Conference number: XXIV


ConferenceConference of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics
LocationUniversity of Vienna
Internet address


  • abstract art
  • figurative art
  • EEG
  • band power
  • eye-tracking
  • psychophysiology
  • self-report


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