A brain experiment on abstract vs representational art reveals the secrets of how we make decisions, and how we impulsive humans may finally learn to delay gratification. Psychologist Daphna Shohamy, Professor of Psychology at the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia University, explains “construal level theory” and what that means about art — and dessert. Plus… The Stendahl Syndrome (aka an Art Attack), in which great works can quite literally knock you flat.
Phil Stieg: Hello, today, I have with me Dr. Daphna Shohamy. She’s a professor of psychology at Columbia University and in the Zuckerman Institute. Her background is in understanding, learning, memory and decision making. But more recently, she is working with Celia Durkin and Eric Kandel, a Nobel laureate, trying to understand how we respond to art. Daphna, welcome and thank you for being with us today.
Daphna Shohamy: It’s great to be here. Thanks so much for inviting me.
Phil Stieg: So why did you pick art, or was this just a serendipity? Where you’re sitting around having a cup of tea with Eric and Celia and had a great idea?
Daphna Shohamy: Eric and Celia had a deep interest in art and how it affects our mind and brain, And they approached me because they wanted to scan people’s brains when they were observing abstract art to see how that differed from when they were observing representational art. I think the first really fundamental question was, is it true that we actually do respond differently to abstract versus representational art? And that if we could find a way to measure that behaviorally, then that would teach us something about how we respond to art, but also something much broader about how our mind works.
Phil Stieg: So describe an experiment to me. What did you do to a subject?
Daphna Shohamy: So what we did is we showed people pictures of art. And people saw a work of art could be representational or abstract, and they just had to make a simple decision. Would you put this painting in a gallery near you or far from you? And then separately, we also asked people, would you put this painting in a gallery if you were curating it for an exhibit tomorrow or in one year?
(Re-enacted Voice of research subject) OK, I’m ready to look at some pictures. (music) OK, that one’s good. Simple. Pretty. We’ll put that one in a show tomorrow. (music change) OK, that one has nice shapes, nice colors. We’ll put that in a show next year. (music change) This one can go in a gallery right down the street. (music change) Oh, that one… Definitely on the other side of town!
(music fade out)
Phil Stieg: How did you think people were going to respond?
Daphna Shohamy: The natural thing that we would want to ask people when observing art is, do you like this work of art? But we weren’t really interested in that kind of affective or aesthetic response. We were interested in knowing whether there was a difference between these two forms of art and how they make us think. And that’s what led us to turn to Construal Level Theory or CLT.
Phil Stieg: Construal Level Theory — that’s a mouthful. And hopefully you can explain it in layman’s terms.
Daphna Shohamy: I will try my best. To put it in the simplest possible terms, the idea is that we construe events or people in the world differently, whether they’re near us in time and space or far from us in time or space. The idea being that the way I thought of this podcast interview two months ago is going to be different in terms of my mental construal, how I plan for it, how I’m thinking of it, relative to five minutes ago before we began. Our hypothesis was that people would be more likely to put abstract art farther away in time or space and that there would be more likely to put representational art (where there’s less room for mental maneuvering and associations) closer to them in time and space.
Phil Stieg: And you found?
Daphna Shohamy: And that is exactly what we found. And it is worth dwelling on that for a moment, because in science, that often is not the case. We often very often walk into a project with clear hypotheses and discover something completely different. And that can be thrillingand important in its own right and more interesting often…
Phil Stieg: And more questions
Daphna Shohamy: And more questions. And in this case, in the first study that Celia ran, we found exactly what we expected. And so Eric and I said, well, that’s suspicious. Why don’t we do that again? And so we did the study again and again, and we ran it three separate times on three separate samples in three different ways. And the results came out the same every single time.
Phil Stieg: Did you look at variable forms of abstract art? You know – the more strange it was, the further away they put it? (laugh)
Daphna Shohamy: It’s a good question. You know, we didn’t really dig into nuanced differences between particular paintings, we just said we’re going to treat all the abstract art as one group and all the representational art as one group. And if that works, if we learn something there, then as a follow up, we can start coming up with new hypotheses about what is it about one particular kind of abstract art that might elicit a particular response.
Phil Stieg: And what can you say about the response to the abstract art? Why did they put them, you know, further down the road or further in the distance for a gallery?
Daphna Shohamy: Right. Well, one thing we thought of first was, well, maybe it had to do with how much people like abstract art or maybe it had to do with how much expertise they had with art. So the idea there was maybe we’re completely wrong about art, that we we’re thinking about it. And maybe it’s just when you don’t like something, you put it far away from you and it has nothing to do with the abstractness. We did we did ask people how much expertise they had with art, how much time they spent enjoying art. And what we found is that expertise does not, again, explain away the results, though, so both in people with high expertise, with art and people with low expertise, people who really like abstract art, people who don’t like abstract art, you still find that overall the same pattern of behaviors.
Phil Stieg: When you looked at the functional MRI scans on the individuals as they were looking at abstract versus representational art, what did you see? Do different areas of the brain light up?
Daphna Shohamy: Yes, so we see that different areas of the brain do light up, just I will say that we are still analyzing the functional MRI data and so those have not been reported yet. But I’ll give you a sneak peek, as it were, to tell you that one area that’s showing, I think, a very interesting difference is an area that they spend a lot of time thinking about my work, which is the hippocampus.
Phil Stieg: And the hippocampus is important to us because, you know, tell us tell us where it is, what it does.
Daphna Shohamy: The hippocampus is located and both sides of the brain right behind our ears in the medial temporal lobe. We know that the hippocampus plays a very critical role in creating memories of our everyday experiences.
Phil Stieg: And that area lit up differently based on the art form displayed?
Daphna Shohamy: Yes. So we saw more activity in the hippocampus. We see more activity in the hippocampus when people are looking at representational art than when they’re looking at abstract art.
Phil Stieg: So they’re drawing more upon their memory when they’re looking at something they know. I can only imagine what part of the brain lights up when they’re looking at abstract art. It’s got to be a different region.
Daphna Shohamy: That’s right. What we’re seeing so far is that there’s more activity actually in what we would call primary visual areas, visual cortex, parts of the brain that respond to abstract shapes, lines, angles, colors, those parts of the brain that are critical for processing any visual information or actually showing relatively more activity for abstract art than for representational art.
Those parts of the brain that are critical for processing any visual information or actually showing relatively more activity for abstract art than for representational art. We don’t know yet why, and we think it has to do with other parts of the brain that are interacting with it in frontal cortex and in the hippocampus.
Phil Stieg: What about the frontal lobes where, you know, judgment and executive function is housed? I would think that that would light up more as well with abstract art, because you’re thinking about it more, correct?
Daphna Shohamy: That’s exactly how we’re thinking about the hypotheses. And we don’t have the answer yet. We’re still working on that.
Phil Stieg: We will return to Dr. Shohamy’s fascinating exploration of these mental “art galleries” after a short break.
Phil Stieg: So do you think that this the whole CLT theory fits in just the way we approach everyday life? You know, I find for myself, I look at something, you know, I can do that tomorrow or next week. So I put the more difficult thing further down the road, whether it’s abstract art or whether it’s just a task. Tomorrow’s another day. I’ll take care of it then. Is that is that the take home message?
Daphna Shohamy: This idea that there’s something different in how we think about what to do and what the priorities are now versus later is really fundamental to how the mind works. There are many observations across many domains showing that people and other animals respond differently to something that’s happening right now versus something that might happen or will happen later. This is a big issue in health related decision making. I might wake up in the morning and decide that I won’t have dessert at night. But now that this desert is in front of me here and now, I decided I’ll have the dessert now and tomorrow I won’t have dessert.
Phil Stieg: Are we are we going to be able to train people to face to face up to that difficult issue today and deal with it? Is that the that the goal?
Daphna Shohamy: I think one of the important things for me is really to develop an understanding and an appreciation for why we have these weaknesses. As humans we often tend to complain, like, why couldn’t I resist that cake? As a scientist, I feel like it’s important that we understand that what seemed to be weaknesses in our system are part of actually something that’s very sophisticated and has many strengths as well. And it’s just a balance and a trade-off.
Phil Stieg: Gosh, if we could get people to eat more healthily, their hearts and their brains would be a lot more healthy. And, you know, I see patients every day that that don’t do that. And how we could modify behavior without feeling like we’re inflicting something negative on somebody’s life would be a great advance.
Daphna Shohamy: I agree, I think that’s really at the heart of what many of my colleagues and I are trying to do is to understand that link between motivation and decision making because it’s so relevant to our health and well-being. There’s actually one really nice scientific example of how that might work. It was a study by Christian Buchel in Germany about a decade ago where he connected this idea of memory to the idea of decisions in time. And we know that if you give people the opportunity to take five dollars now or ten dollars next week, often they’ll prefer five dollars now, which is deemed irrational. They’re losing five dollars in this decision. And what he did is he said, let’s take that exact same famous experiment. But now, instead of asking five dollars now and ten dollars later, let’s say ten dollars next Wednesday afternoon, when you’re in the cafeteria, we’re just going to add some associative memory, reminiscent sort of details. And when you do that, people are more likely to make the decision to take the ten dollars later.
Phil Stieg: For a neurosurgeon, I take a very broad view and feel that neurosurgeons should be the “brain health” doctors.
Daphna Shohamy: Yeah, yeah.
Phil Stieg: And you know, a lot of the things that you’re doing as I see it, the long-term benefit is going to be in terms of helping cognitive behavioral therapists modify brain responses to everyday stimuli. Yes. Some bad and others. Good. And so how do you magnify the good stimuli and get rid of the bad ones?
Daphna Shohamy: Right. And I’d say better yet, how do you teach people to do that for themselves and to understand some of these effects so that they can structure their lives in a way that makes it easier to make healthy decisions and so forth? Yeah, absolutely.
Phil Stieg: Daphna, it’s been a delightful time talking with you and learning how we go through decision processes, using something that not all of us are familiar with, abstract and representational art. But the deeper question about how our brain functions when we look at that and how we manage the information is going to be of key importance in helping a number of behavioral issues in people in the future. Thanks so much for being with us.
Daphna Shohamy: Thank you so much.