Science Weighs in On Whether You Should Shut Up When Looking At Art
​Image: Klein C, Betz J, Hirschbuehl M, Fuchs C, Schmiedtová B, et al.

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Science Weighs in On Whether You Should Shut Up When Looking At Art

Pontificators of the world, unite and take over.
December 11, 2014, 3:46pm

People who enjoy the cool quiet reverence of an art museum aren't going to want to hear this—what do they want to hear anyway?—but according to ​new research published on PLOS One, talking about a painting while looking at it changes the way you see it. Talking actually helps you see more of it.

Wearing absurd helmet-camera devices that tracked their pupils, college students from the University of Heidelberg were either given 15 minutes to gaze at a reproduction of a painting, or 10 minutes to look with five minutes of answering questions about what they were looking at, like "Please describe what you see on the painting," "How would you interpret the painting?", "Did the painting remind you of something?", and "Did you like the painting?"

Klein C, Betz J, Hirschbuehl M, Fuchs C, Schmiedtová B, et al.

The results "found that during speaking as compared to no-speaking, participants exhibited more, but shorter fixations that covered a smaller area of the painting; they also produced more and longer gaze movements—covering more spread out regions of the painting—and repeated more often transitions between (some of) the fixation clusters."

The study came with these visualizations demonstrating where the eye moves between "fixation clusters." In the top image, when people were speaking about the painting, the number of "fixation frequencies" is higher, and the gaze moved among them more frequently.

Klein C, Betz J, Hirschbuehl M, Fuchs C, Schmiedtová B, et al.

Multitasking sometimes gets a bad rap, but this study appears to demonstrate that doing the right two things at once can actually improve performance. "The overall pattern of changes induced by speaking in the present study suggests—if anything—dual task facilitation of speaking on looking at paintings," the study states.

The researchers go on:

"More frequent gaze transitions between fixation clusters, points to an overall pattern of findings in which the gaze becomes swifter, more selective and better structured through speaking, rather than attentionally depleted. Furthermore, it is the repetition of gaze transitions between fixation clusters that have been suggested from an art-historical point of view to reflect an understanding of a painting's structure."

Which is all great news for everyone except for the person next to you at the art museum, who may or may not want to hear what you're fixation clustering at the moment. Those people will be glad to hear that science also working on figuring out ​how to get through art museums without having to be around other patrons.