Psychological studies, and how they can influence art

I’ve had a lot of posts lately about what a science nerd I am, and this one is no exception. I just happened to catch a glimpse of this article at the blog Neurophilosophy, a Scienceblogs.com blog that I clearly don’t read enough of. It mentions the link between the mind and the body, specifically how literally moving forward can trigger thoughts of the future, while moving backwards triggers thoughts of the past.

Afterwards, the participants were asked if they had experienced any unrelated thoughts while they viewed the [moving] display. The 25 who reported that they had daydreamed during the task were asked to dismiss those thoughts that were anchored in the present moment, and to consider only those that related to the past or future. They were then asked to indicate the proportion of past- and future-related daydreams on a horizontal line. If, for example, their thoughts consisted solely of daydreams related to the past, they were to mark the extreme left end of the scale.

Remarkably, it was found that the direction of illusory motion in the moving displays modulated the direction of the participants’ mental time travel. Those participants who had viewed the display with apparent backward motion reported that the daydreams they had experienced during the task consisted mainly, or solely, of memories of the past, while those who viewed the display with apparent forward motion reported thoughts related to the future. The displays used in the study produced an illusory sense of motion, so real movements could possibly have a stronger effect.

It seems like, with this experiment, the actual later recognition of the content of daydreams was influenced by the motion, so the participants might have focused more on the daydreams that dealt with the past if they were watching the display that moved them backwards, for example.

This says something interesting to me about how productions might be staged, movies filmed, etc. As audience members, we should naturally become sympathetic to the main character or characters, so if they literally move forward or backward on stage, this could become symbolic for us, with a very direct, quick neurological link to the motion and the memory.

The article does mention that this motion has a cultural context —

In the Aymara ethnic group of the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America, for example, the mental relationship between space and time is reversed. By convention, Aymara speakers refer to past (or known) events as being located at the fore, and future (unknown) events as being behind, so the way in which movements influence the direction of mental time travel may also be reversed.

There’s an interesting reversal in head-nodding in Bulgaria, which I got to experience first-hand. Bulgarians are, for the most part, aware of their cultural discrepancy so those with links to the tourist trade know how to nod up and down for yes, side to side for no, because that is the accepted Western style, and they will do so frequently for the Westerner’s benefit. However, in Bulgarian culture, nodding is reversed — side to side for yes, up and down for no. I don’t know why this is so, but it is. So they have a different motor association with positive and negative than we do. Because of this article, I wonder how this influences their performing arts — if you move up and down on stage, is that seen as a negative, while moving side to side a positive? Do Westerners have a different association with these motions?

Reading through more articles at Neurophilosophy, I also stumbled across this: Mental Time Travel (having nothing to do with motion).

It is because of the reconstructive nature of memory that we are able to travel forward in time as well as back into the past. Research carried out in recent years has shown that imagining future events and recalling those that we have already experienced are dependent on the same core network of brain regions. It seems that both involve the same cognitive processes – when we look forward to something that might happen in the future, the brain generates a simulation of that event using fragments of memories of past events.

However, the evidence for this is indirect, and it is possible that what are thought to be simulations of future events are in fact merely memories of past events being “recast” into the future. But a new study, due to be published in the September issue of the journal Neuropsychologia, now confirms that these simulations are indeed novel constructions, and also shows that remembering actual experiences and imagining possible future events depend on distinct subsystems within the common core network.

So, imagination plays a huge role in both memory and interpretation of memory. This, for me, is a great argument in favor of performing arts — good performances should expand your imagination, show you new ways of processing events via the cast and crew’s interpretation, and it should also indirectly give you new experiences to process. Processing these experiences is the whole reason I started this blog, for example. Because we sympathize with the characters in a given play, movie, video game, novel, etc (but especially, I would assume, we sympathize with those characters we can see), we can gain new experiences indirectly, feel emotions deeply as events unfold, and this should add to our knowledge of ourselves, our depth of experience with the world. Is this where catharsis comes from?

I also wonder how important it is for the experience to happen live in person, vs. with the distance of film, vs. the interaction of video games. Theatre and films usually just sort of happen to you — Western audiences are expected to be passive observers of these, while with video games you have a certain amount of control over what your character sees and experiences (if you want to go finish all your side quests before finishing the main quest in any given RPG, you can do that). But how much more sympathy or empathy do we feel for watching events happen to real people who are right in front of us, vs watching an edited, high definition, possibly 3-D, CGI-ed version? Do we learn to think more creatively because movies can show us a more detailed fictional world? Do we learn more about our emotions and personal interactions because live theatre deals with actual people right in front of us?

Obviously my answer is a tentative yes to these questions based on how I phrased them, but I would really like to see some studies done on what parts of the creative brain light up during these different experiences. I think all of these art forms are valuable because they help us learn in different ways, but I am really curious about what those different ways are, and what it is we’re learning, and how our brains are expanding because we interact with art. I think that might be the best argument for keeping art in schools — we have a general understanding that creative thinking is important in the business sector, but I think it is a sad, and too vague, argument. I hate that we have to apply value to the arts based entirely on our economic structure. I hate that we have to value arts in relation to math and science, although I think it is important to know that they are all linked, because humans invented all of these things.

And that entry I wrote earlier about advertising? Here’s some mention that it does have an effect on our cognition:

First, the participants read a short paragraph unrelated to food. This was used to determine a baseline reading speed. Then, they did a lexical decision task – in this sort of task, words are flashed quickly on a computer screen, and the individual must decide whether or not the stimulus flashed was a real word (e.g. tube, wind, sock) or a made-up nonword (e.g. zube, dind, solk). But the experimenters didn’t actually care about their responses to this task because while they were doing it, in the corners of the screen, flashing objects were presented subliminally for just 12 milliseconds. In the fast food condition, these were fast food logos. In the control condition, they were just colored squares.

By flashing the images so quickly, the experimenters were able to ensure that their perception did not reach consciousness. After this experimental manipulation, participants were given several paragraphs to read on the computer screen, and the time taken to read the entire passage was recorded.

After the experiment was over, participants in BOTH conditions reported that they simply perceived colored blocks in the corners, but nothing meaningful.

The individuals in the experimental group, who were subliminally exposed to fast food logos, read the passage significantly faster than the control group, even after controlling for baseline reading speed. It should be noted that there was no time pressure in the reading task. Despite this, at the unconscious level, exposure to fast food stimuli increased reading speed by an average of 15 seconds.

That was from The Thoughtful Animal’s article, “Your Brain on Fast Food.” We associate the symbols with haste, possibly even with stress (I know that’s how I think about McDonald’s most of the time), so that makes us hastier. Faster does not equal better, of course, and being overly stressed or hasty can lower your reading comprehension, raise your blood pressure, release adrenaline in a fight or flight response, and increase road rage, among just a few things. On the other hand, as an artist, if these are the effects you’re going for with your artistic message, then this is definitely good stuff to know. Motion effects what your mind thinks about, and certain images effect how you react to that.

Being me, I also think this is a strong argument for a much more physical story-telling theatre. What is of utmost importance is the audience’s comprehension of your story — actors’ emotions are, frankly, secondary to the overall expression of the piece. On the other hand, when The Method works, it can work beautifully — remembering how you felt when your first pet died may lend some gravity to a mourning scene, if the actor can physically express this. On the other other hand, experiments with the flow of story-telling can have a huge overall effect on the audience — take any Brecht play, for example, and consider them in context of how jarring and disjointed modern life can seem for most of us. There’s been a lot of talk about how quick cut scenes in film have negatively impacted audience patience — we expect story telling to be in 2-second blips of facial expressions and dramatically-whispered dialogue. It takes a zen master to sit through Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

I’m not passing any value judgments on increased haste, disjointedness, symbolism, or motion in our culture. I actually think all artists should keep up with psychological and neurological studies, with an eye on cultural biases, because it can really influence how you tell your story, and what your audience interprets as important in your work.

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