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Do You Feel Me?

By Rachel Jardin, Brielle Richardson, Mónica Rodrigues, Michael Scerbo, Katherine Symons

How Emotions Can be Interpreted Through the Art Experience – Evaluations on Matthew Pelowski’s Introduction to Emotional and Empathic Connections.

//Students from programs, MSc in Psychology of the Arts, Neuroaesthetics, and Creativity as well as from MSc Music, Mind and Brain were given the opportunity to be part of a talk held by Matthew Pelowski, where he discussed his recent behavioural and brain studies regarding the understanding of emotional and empathic connections between the artist and the viewer. //

Art is all in the telling. Like a story, art is a way of encountering. It is to meet someone halfway in a space, where you can take a moment to observe, to feel, to listen, and to tell each other a story. In the same way, to love someone is to put yourself in their place, to put yourself in their story. A story is a place and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, an artistic gesture. Encountering an artwork is entering in an emotional dialogue with the object, the artist and yourself; in other words, art is a compelling and empathic experience.

What is empathy, then? Empathy is primarily known as the imaginative capacity to understand what someone else may be feeling through the experience of emotional contagion. A key element in human social engagement; empathy, or “einfuhlung”, as it is known in German, was originally coined to describe the experience of “feeling into” (Gerger, Pelowski & Leder, 2018). Simply, this describes the human ability to relate to non-social contexts by perceiving objects as part of the self (Stavrova & Meckel, 2017). This is perhaps why, when exploring emotion transmission through art, empathy first comes to mind as the ‘interpreter’ mechanism, translating the artist’s language spoken through the artwork to the viewer. Indeed, empathy is argued to be necessary to engage with art, as it is suggested that the better one’s ability to feel into an object, the more pleasurable one’s engagement with it is (Freedberg & Gallese, 2007).

Precisely at this crossroads between art experience, emotions and empathy, we encounter the work of Matthew Pelowski. Whilst his former research has found little evidence between one’s own empathic sensibility and the ability to ‘feel more’, recent findings (i.e. Pelowski, Specker, Gerger, Leder & Weingarden, 2018) clearly show how the viewers’ possess an ability to not only guess, but also to feel the emotions intended by the artists. Perhaps most interestingly, findings of a spontaneous connection reveal how viewers also perceived the same emotions as the artists did, even when the latter did not intend for these to be transmitted through their artwork (Pelowski et al, 2018).


Empathy and emotions between viewers and artists in behavioural and brain studies.

Pelowski et al (2018) explored the topic of emotion sharing through artworks and assessed both the artist’s intentions and emotional experiences when creating three installation artworks by three different artists, as well as the consequent emotions and understanding experienced by the viewers. In the first artwork, the artist aimed for a light, happy tone, whereas in the second artwork, the artist aimed at evoking a sense of disorientation and increased anxiety. Lastly, the artist of the third installation intended for it to be a bombardment of contradictory sounds and imagery, hoping that this chaotic experience would bring viewers together (refer to Figure 1 for reference of artworks and study design).

Figure 1. Artwork and study design examples.

According to the study, viewers in the first and second artworks, regardless of intention, revealed similar emotion patterns to the ones felt by the artist while making the pieces, and could feel the intended emotions even at a higher magnitude. However, this was not the case for the third artwork, with only 13.5% of participants reporting an understanding of the artists intentions, additionally rating this installation as “unclear” and “distant” (Pelowski et al, 2018). These results suggest the possibility that emotions have been shared, therefore an empathic space was created. Similar results were also found in another study (in press) performed by Pelowski on professional artists.

Surprisingly, whilst it could be easy to assume that higher empathy involves a higher capacity to perceive the emotions of others’, Pelowski’s study did not find significant evidence that the trait of empathy could predict differences in general magnitude of emotional response. Could it be possible that the viewers did not actually feel the artists intended emotions, but were simply feeling themselves? Or could these results have occurred simply by chance?

Art has been used as a tool to convey emotional dialogues across all cultures as a universal language (Schepman & Rodway, 2019) through the ‘aesthetic experience’ (Pelowski & Akiba, 2011). Certainly, the aesthetic experience is known to be also a personal, emotional and introspective journey, driven mostly by one’s sense of self and by personal expectations (Pelowski et al,  2014). So, whilst there is clear evidence of a strong link between depicted emotions and art appreciation, this actually raises more questions. What mechanisms could underlie this?


Our brains constantly receive a vast amount of information from our senses, that is constantly being interpreted, commonly through past experiences as a guide. When the brain cannot revise each past memory, it instead uses concepts. A concept is a ‘mental particular’, meaning an abstract idea that occurs in the mind. A mental representation created by our brains to make faster sense of the world around us (Margolis & Laurence, 1999). In this way, the brain will only need to retrieve the relevant bits of sensory information to match it with a relative concept. Words are able to communicate concepts – often there are various words to express one concept; conversely, many different concepts are expressed by one word.

Jackson Pollock – The artist at work

Audience viewing Jackson Pollock’s work.

Under the Theory of Constructed Emotion, concepts are used to make sense of our experiences; a brain interpretation of bodily sensations (Barrett, 2017). For instance, the experience of fear is a simulation based upon our body’s predicted reaction to external situations. This idea supports Pelowski et al’s findings (2018), suggesting that perceiving, or even ‘imagining perceiving’ something can not only mirror the similar emotions, but also activate the same neural mechanisms as if one is directly experiencing it (Gallese & Guerra, 2015). As such, this notion of a cognitive, online simulation (Pelowski et al, 2018) can be argued to account for empathy, whilst also being one of the possible mechanisms facilitating the empathic conversation between viewer and artist.

Language is the common medium used to communicate internal concepts, these can be expressed using words, as well as pictures, or video; or far more abstract forms. In other words, an aesthetically compelling piece of work is the result of the artists’ unique imagination, perception, motor skills and spatial abilities (Pelowski et al, 2019), combined with past experience. In the same way, the viewer can experience an artwork through their own socially and culturally constructed experience, moderated by distinct interpersonal traits (Pelowski et al, 2018).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fact that viewers could guess the right emotions in the artworks, attuning themselves to the artists’ own feelings (Pelowski et al, 2018), certainly points to a shared language for emotional representations. Most importantly, Pelowski’s work has made it clear that there is wide room for further empirical progress, not only in exploring the emotion-transmitting potential of art, but also in determining how these emotional connections are so firmly established through artworks.

So, the question stays open, do you really feel me?


Barrett, L. F., (2017). How Emotions Are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain. New York: Mifflin Harcourt.

Freedberg, D., & Gallese, V. (2007). Motion, emotion and empathy in aesthetic experience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(5), 197–203.

Gallese, V. & Guerra, M. (2015). The Empathic Screen: Neuroscience and Cinema. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. pp. 38-44.

Gerger, G., Pelowski, M., & Leder, H. (2018). Empathy, Einfühlung, and aesthetic experience: The effect of emotion contagion on appreciation of representational and abstract art using fEMG and SCR. Cognitive Processing.

Margolis, E., & Laurence, S. (1999). Concepts: Core readings. MIT Press.

Pelowski, M., & Akiba, F. (2011). A model of art perception, evaluation and emotion in transformative aesthetic experience. New Ideas in Psychology, 29(2), 80–97.

Pelowski, M., Liu, T., Palacios, V., & Akiba, F. (2014). When a body meets a body: An exploration of the negative impact of social interactions on museum experiences of art. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 15(14).

Pelowski, M., Markey, P., Goller, J., Förster, E., & Leder, H. (2019). But, How Can We Make “Art?” Artistic Production Versus Realistic Copying and Perceptual Advantages of Artists. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 13(4), 462-481.

Pelowski, M., Specker, E., Gerger, G., Leder, H., & Weingarden, L. (2018). Do You Feel Like I Do? A Study of Spontaneous and Deliberate Emotion Sharing and Understanding Between Artists and Perceivers of Installation Art. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2018.

Schepman, A., & Rodway, P. (2019). Shared Meaning in Representational and Abstract Visual Art: An Empirical Study. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2019.

Searle, J. R., 1995. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Stavrova, O., & Meckel, A. (2017). Perceiving emotion in non-social targets: The effect of trait empathy on emotional contagion through art. Motivation and Emotion, 41(4), 492–509.

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