Since the advent of the concept of empathy in the scientific literature, it has been hypothesized, although not necessarily empirically verified, that empathic processes are essential to aesthetic experiences of visual art. We tested how the ability to “feel into” (“Einfühlung”) emotional content—a central aspect of art empathy theories—affects the bodily responses to and the subjective judgments of representational and abstract paintings. The ability to feel into was measured by a standardized pre-survey on “emotional contagion”—the ability to pick up and mirror, or in short to “feel into”, emotions, which often overlaps with higher general or interpersonal empathetic abilities. Participants evaluated the artworks on several aesthetic dimensions (liking, valence, moving, and interest), while their bodily reactions indicative of empathetic engagement (facial electromyography—EMG, and skin conductance responses—SCR) were recorded. High compared to low emotion contagion participants showed both more congruent and more intense bodily reactions (EMG and SCR) and aesthetic evaluations (higher being moved, valence, and interest) and also liked the art more. This was largely the case for both representational and abstract art, although stronger with the representational category. Our findings provide tentative evidence for recent arguments by art theorists for a close “empathic” mirroring of emotional content. We discuss this interpretation, as well as a potential tie between emotion contagion and a general increase in emotion intensity, both of which may impact, in tandem, the experience and evaluation of art.
Cognitive Processing – Springer Journals
Published: Mar 17, 2017
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