Ditch Distractions to Find More Beauty in the World, Study Confirms

Isaac Kaplan
May 26, 2017 5:50PM

Installation view of Xavier Hufkens’s booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach, 2015. Photo by Oriol Tarridas for Artsy.

Science has now confirmed what your crotchety Art History 101 professor always said—texting, tweeting, or snapping a selfie while exploring a museum likely decreases your ability to appreciate what’s hanging on the walls.

This conclusion comes via a new study, published earlier this month, which found that experiencing beauty requires cognitive thought and is therefore hindered by distractions.

Co-authors Aenne A. Brielmann and Denis G. Pelli of New York University framed their research as a response to Immanuel Kant’s theories. The 18th-century German philosopher claimed that “experiencing beauty requires thought but sensuous pleasure can be enjoyed without thought and cannot be beautiful,” their study notes.

To put Kant’s dictum to the test, the authors asked 62 participants to rate the pleasure they got from certain images. Each person then judged whether or not the image was beautiful on a sliding scale that ranged from “definitely not” to “definitely yes.” The visuals—anything from a family of cheerful puppies to Ikea furniture—were drawn from a scientific database populated with images known to trigger certain emotional responses.

Participants were also asked to rank more “sensuous” experiences, like sucking on a Jolly Rancher or cuddling a teddy bear. Across the study, researchers found that pleasure and beauty were closely linked—more “beautiful” objects were also more pleasurable.

Finally, they repeated the experiment—this time adding in a memory task that reduced cognitive capacity. Distracted participants, the researchers found, ranked the study’s beautiful images as significantly less beautiful and pleasurable than they had earlier. There was no equivalent decline for images previously judged as not beautiful. According to the authors, these findings indicate Kant was correct in asserting that beauty and thought are linked.

“You cannot experience [beauty] if you are so distracted you cannot think about the experience anymore,” Brielmann told Artsy.

But the researchers also found something surprising: People described the experience of sucking on a Jolly Rancher as “beautiful.” When questioned further about this assertion, one participant responded, ‘‘Of course, anything can be beautiful.’’ This result challenges Kant’s notion that, since sensuous experiences do not require thought, they cannot be beautiful.

However, Bevil Conway—a neuroscientist at the National Eye Institute who has conducted similar research—remains unconvinced. “It’s not clear that the authors’ paradigm makes Kant’s hypothesis tractable,” Conway told Smithsonian Magazine, pointing out that Kant also said beauty required “disinterested contemplation,” which the study didn’t directly measure. He also noted that the study never defined beauty, which could explain some of the more surprising findings.

But Brielmann readily admits the determinations were highly subjective. “In this experiment we were interested in finding out what the experience of beauty is, so we didn’t give a definition to our participants,” she said. “Do we want [beauty] to reflect the everyday experience of people in the world? Or an academically designed, top-down term that is normative?”

Although the study’s findings could easily apply to a museum or gallery environment, works of fine art were not explicitly among the “beautiful” images presented to participants. This research also raises another long-standing art world question—does it matter how long an undistracted viewer looks at something? Does extended contemplation allow for a greater perception of beauty than a cursory glance? Brielmann said she plans to explore the relationship between duration and beauty in future research.

Indeed, she noted that an early takeaway is the need for more nuance. “Maybe there is something like the mundane beauty of everyday experiences versus an artistic beauty,” Brielmann said. For now, though, the best bet for a really rich museum experience is to put away that cell phone.

Isaac Kaplan