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2015-2017: Art and Brain: An integrated approach to causative analysis of neural function in perception of art


This project will bring Dr. Matthew Pelowski to Vienna University to undergo a unique two-way program of knowledge transfer and to conduct an innovative, integrated behavioral/neural study of art perception using causative brain manipulation via TMS or (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) or TDCS (Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation). 

Employing causative technology, we will systematically manipulate three key brain regions (prefrontal, temporal and parietal), while individuals view a selection of art. Based on an approach by Dr. Pelowski, a recently developed set of cognitive, emotional and evaluative reactions will be recorded via specially designed survey and assessed via a cognitive model which integrates these elements, both of which will empower this study and which he will introduce to the Vienna group. We will collect a comprehensive within-subject dataset of specific impact of brain regions on art experience.

This research will provide the “next step” for clarifying previous cognitive and neurological findings, achieving their integration. It will clarify general questions of brain role in emotion and evaluation. It will also have wide inter-sectoral application to dementia research and art therapy, which will be explored with experts in Leder’s group, and will be a breakthrough to future study of integrated neuroaesthetics and psychology of art. This project will also create a new research direction, expanding from an established center at University of Vienna, continuing a key tradition in empirical aesthetics. 

Published/in press papers

Pelowski, M., Markey, P. S., Forster, M., Gerger, G., & Leder, H. (2017). Move me, astonish me… delight my eyes and brain: The Vienna Integrated Model of top-down and bottom-up processes in Art Perception (VIMAP) and corresponding affective, evaluative and neurophysiological correlates. Physics of Life Reviews. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plrev.2017.02.003


Pelowski, M., Markey, P. S., Forster, M., Gerger, G., & Leder, H. (2017). What do we hope to accomplish by modeling art experience? Reply to comments on “Move me, astonish me... delight my eyes and brain: The Vienna Integrated Model of top-down and bottom-up processes in Art Perception (VIMAP) and corresponding affective, evaluative, and neurophysiological correlates.” Physics of Life Reviews. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plrev.2017.07.002


Pelowski, M., Markey, P. S., Lauring, J. O., & Leder, H. (2016). Visualizing the Impact of Art: An Update and Comparison of Current Psychological Models of Art Experience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10(160). DOI: http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00160

Pelowski, M., & Leder, H. (2016). But what does the brain do to our experience of art? A new integrated model of aesthetic experience. 24th Conference of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics. Vienna, Austria.


Leder, H., Markey, P., & Pelowski, M. (2015). Aesthetic Emotions to Art – what they are and what makes them special. Comment on “The Quartet Theory of Human Emotions: An Integrative and Neurofunctional Model” by Koelsch et al. Physics of Life Reviews, 13, 67-70. DOI: 10.1016/j.plrev.2015.04.037


Pelowski, M., Leder, H. & Tinio, P. (in press). Creativity in the domain of Visual Art. In James C. Kaufman, John Baer, Vlad Glaveanu (Eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Creativity Across Different Domains. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Zhang, M., Liu, T., Dongchuan, Y., & Pelowski, M. (2017). Gender difference in spontaneous deception: A hyperscanning study using functional near-infrared spectroscopy. Scientific Reports

Pelowski, M., Forster, M., Tinio, P., Scholl, M., & Leder, H. (in press). Beyond the Lab: An Examination of Key Factors Influencing Interaction with ‘Real’ and Museum-based Art. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000141

Gerger, G., Pelowski, M., & Leder, H. (2017). Empathy, Einfühlung, and aesthetic experience: The effect of emotion contagion on appreciation of abstract and representational art using SCR and fEMG. Cognitive Processing - International Quarterly of Cognitive Science. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-017-0800-2


Gerger, G., Ishizu, T., & Pelowski, M. (in press). Empathy as a guide for understanding the balancing of Distancing-Embracing with negative art: commentary on "The DISTANCING-EMBRACING model of the enjoyment of negative emotions in art reception." Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Invited speeches

7-3-2017. Move me, astonish me, make me tremble, weep, shudder, rage: assessing the main varieties of psychological experience had with art. New Directions in Empirical Research of Humanity. Keio University, Tokyo Japan.

11-5-2017. Move me, astonish me, make me cry and rage… or don’t: Investigating the varieties of reactions to art. University of Vienna, Faculty of Psychology Research Colloquium. University of Vienna, Austria.


31-8-2016. Presentation for the 2016 Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten Award for Outstanding Contributions of Young Scientists. International Association of Empirical Aesthetics. Vienna, Austria.

Education and Outreach

November 2017 (forthcoming). Vienna Aesthetic Symposium: Art and Brain, what have we learned from new causative and imaging approaches?

30 August, 2016. Special Symposium “Neuroaesthetics: What have we learned?”. 24th Conference of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics. Vienna, Austria.


27 May 2016. Invited presentation at the MSCA-IF Proposal Writing Workshop. University of Vienna, Research Services and Career Development.

Related Master and Internship Projects

How do we seeart? An analysis of art classification using behavioral and causative approaches. (Yasmine Chetouani, Matthew Pelowski, Helmut Leder).

Art making and the brain: Analysis of the foundation of art making and neurobiological advantages of artists, via causative brain study (Eric Frster (Master project), Matthew Pelowski, Patrick Markey, Helmut Leder). 

The Brain on Art: what is the impact of brain regions on more naturalistic viewing of art. (Anastasia Grossmann (Master Project), Matthew Pelowski, Helmut Leder)

Accounting for others’ taste: is social priming effect on artwork liking Normative or Stimulating/Aspirational? A Causative study. (Jasmin Reschling (Master Project), Matthew Pelowski, Patrick Markey, Helmut Leder

The Kitsch Switch: A causative and behavioral analysis of the brain's role in top down and bottom up integration in the enjoyment of bad art. (Giulia Cabbai (Internship), Matthew Pelowski, Michael Forster, Helmut Leder).


Background of the topic and the project

One of the most fruitful areas for psychological study of human perception is interaction with art. Because of art’s ubiquity and universality among the human species, art represents an important stimulus revealing core insights into behavior and thought (Cela Conde et al., 2011). Art perception is in fact often considered one of the few uniquely human phenomena whereby we are expected to process multiple types of information, experience myriad emotions, make evaluations; and where these elements not only occur but combine (Leder et al., 2004; Pelowski & Akiba, 2011). As a result, in the last two decades, psychological consideration of perception of art has become an auspicious field with fundamental importance to evolution, biology and all social scientific and humanistic research.

The newest extension of the empirical study of art involves discussion of the brain. Neuroaesthetics emerged as a necessary step from previous cognitive or behavioral psychology (Chatterjee, 2003, 2011). It can connect previous theory and behavioral findings to specific brain regions and mechanisms, which may answer how they are biologically achieved. In the last decade with advances in brain imaging techniques—notably Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Electroencephalography (EEG)—analysis of the brain and art has in turn identified a consistent yet functionally diverse map of involved regions (Nadal et al., 2008). As shown in Figure 1, brain areas identified include regions related to emotion, reward, spatial processing (Vartanian & Goel, 2004; Lengger et al., 2007). Most intriguing, three cortical areas involved in higher cognitive function have also emerged: (1) prefrontal regions—specifically Brodmann areas (BA) 46/10—potentially associated with affect, attention, reflection and executive functions; (2) anterior temporal regions (38, 21) connected to episodic memory, visual processing, multimodal assimilation; and (3) parietal areas (7, 39) linked to sensory integration and self assessment (Lengger et al.; Jacobsen et al., 2006).

These findings suggest great potential for cognitive and neurological study of perception through art, and especially for the pioneering role of neuroaesthetics. However despite gains from previous research, perhaps the most important implication of these results has so far not been addressed. Because of technical limitations in monitoring and theoretical limitations in experimental design, there have been few attempts to consider what specific effects these areas actually have nor what are their functions. That is, while much has been done to unlock relative impact of art on activity in the brain, the reverse—a causative analysis of brain region impact on evaluative, emotional and cognitive experience of art—has not been completed.

Why? Need and potential of Causative analysis: Causative analysis of brain processing of art is of fundamental importance to advancement in both perception and neuropsychological research. Jacobsen et al. (2006), in their review of the state-of-the-art, note that while identifying activated regions, no existing studies of art and the brain “aimed at identifying” the specific impact on art experience. The “next step” for both art’s behavioral and neurological study must be a fully experimental consideration of what these areas actually do or how they may functionally contribute in our processing experience. Sato et al. (2007, p. 297) claim that “bridging this gap” between behavioral outcomes and brain is also “indispensable” for further progress in general neuroscience, offering insight into the brain’s role in emotion, cognition and judgment. This is especially true of the three noted cortical regions because of their connection to a diverse range of functions (Nadal et al., 2008). Testing these regions is also important for improvement of existing models of art processing. Modeling, only begun in the last decade (Leder & Nadal, in press, for review), employs all major cortical areas discussed above in major processing components. It offers important connection to earlier cognitive models and holds potential for integrated answers to how art makes us come to certain emotions or judgments as well as for setting the basis for future directions in psychological research (Chaterjee, 2011).

At the same time in addition to imaging evidence, behavioral and psychiatric work has also shown that changes—related to lesion or dementia in these same regions—do produce notable changes in response to art, further supporting the potential for causative study (Halpern et al., 2008; Graham et al., 2013). In cases involving both lay and professional artists, within art production, we find complete change in palette, technique, expressive nature, perspective etc. (Cela-Conde et al.). Chaterjee et al. (2011) also note key differences in art evaluations affecting symbolism, realism or other conceptual elements. Miller and Hou (2004) argue that because patterns of degeneration lead to predictable, consistent (Halpern et al.), changes, causative study of such impacts in art experience might be a “unique window” into understanding neural function. This study also has major intersectoral and social relevance outside the above questions. By creating a list of specific behavioral reactions tied to activation or deactivation of correlates, it may afford a basis for understanding and differential diagnosis of dementia/brain damage. This is noted by Miller and Hou (2004) as specifically needed for dementia/Alzheimer’s research. Findings can also be used as basis for rehabilitative art-therapy and will open exciting avenues in the EU with direct impact on Horizon 2020 goals of “coping with aging population,” applying “innovative technology,” and creation of international partnerships “opening new, promising fields of innovation and research” in Europe.

How, A new multidisciplinary approach to causative analysis of viewing art: The goal of this project is a systematic, causative analysis of the main previously identified brain regions’ impact on perception of art. This will be accomplished by a unique, multidisciplinary approach to these questions. In order to break from the current impasse in neuroscience, we need to step away from passive imaging to the direct manipulation of target correlates in the brain. This must be paired with observation of the resulting effect on behavior within carefully controlled experiments. This can only be accomplished through collaboration of three elements (Cela-Conde et al., 2011): (1) We need technical means for non-invasive brain manipulation, (2) paired with a theoretical model basis for understanding processing of art and for hypothesizing what behavioral measures do tie to processing stages. We also need (3) a research paradigm for assessing art perception, which can identify and organize such responses.

These elements have been created by our team. The “Perceptual Aesthetics” research focus in the Department for Psychological Basic Research at the University of Vienna, under the leadership of Prof. Dr. Leder, project host, has been at the forefront for the past decade in psychological analysis of art perception. They have been pioneers in modeling art experience, producing the cognitive model that has come to serve as the benchmark for studying art (Leder et al., 2004). They are also pioneers in investigating art’s neural foundations (Lengger et al., 2006), and in specifically documenting the need and potential of causative research (Leder, 2013). In addition, they have recently secured the technological means allowing causative analysis. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) represents the first technology to allow non-invasive and fully experimental analysis of behavioral function in the brain. It essentially duplicates previous lesion research through direct manipulation of activity at specific correlates, with added ability of comparison within healthy participants. It has also shown high promise in aesthetic research including two first applications involving project partner Dr. Nadal (Cattaneo et al., 2014, in press) exploring specific aspects (beauty, preference) of appraising art. At the same time, Dr. Pelowski (Pelowski & Akiba, 2011), working at Nagoya University in Japan and now at Copenhagen University, DK, has developed an important extension of Leder’s work which will supply the vital component for unlocking the potential of a more systematic and expansive TMS-powered research. This includes a theoretical basis for modeling art experience, providing hypotheses for evaluating major outcomes and reactions. He also created an experimental methodology, including key emotional, evaluative and cognitive factors which can quantify the process of art viewing and thus serve as a vital basis for comparative study of impact and function in the TMS-affected brain.

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