Art in the Eye of the Beholder

The expression, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been used by many since it first appeared in print in the 19th century by writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford. Cliché as it may sound, the idea behind this colloquialism—that perception is a subjective experience—is one that researchers are still working to unravel today. We’ve learned that aspects of perception (auditory, time, etc.) can be altered from depression, for example, and that there is a specific part of the brain dedicated solely to facial perception. Now, scientists are looking at differences in personality and how that affects the way a person visually examines a piece of artwork.


Photo courtesy of James Cook University

Published in the latest issue of Brain in the News, the research from cognitive psychologist Nicole Thomas, Ph.D., explains how the same piece of artwork can elicit opposite reactions depending on the observer. “We found that people who tended towards neuroticism paid more attention to the left side of a picture, and those with traits related to schizophrenia looked less often at the top of a picture,” she writes. Thomas is a cognitive psychologist at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, and published her study on how different mental states influence eye movement in the visual perception of art.

We tend to look at the left side of images first, Thomas said. However, she found that individuals whose gaze remained focused at the left side suggested that they found it harder to disengage their attention, as the tendency to focus on the lower portion of an image was previously linked with deficits in attentional focus and control. In general, participants’ eye movements were concentrated in the upper right part of their visual field.

“Artwork is inherently emotional and the emotional reactions elicited by abstract artwork might lead people to focus their attention within the upper right quadrant to better engage that emotional processing,” she said.

To read more stories on neuroscience research happening all around the world, subscribe to Brain in the News and receive the monthly paper in your mailbox. The periodical aims to connect readers with research published by universities, journalists, and the scientists themselves to stay informed on what’s happening inside neuroscience labs. Best of all, it’s free. To subscribe, visit our site or email

– Seimi Rurup

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