‘Measuring measurable:’ Baylor Researchers Earn Grant to Test Spiritual Impact of Art


  • Full-Size Image: Schnitker

    Sarah Schnitker, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University

  • Full-Size Image: Wade Rowatt

    Wade Rowatt, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University

Psychology and neuroscience professors seek to isolate how artistic encounters impact spiritual awareness, compassion and empathy

By Derek Smith, Baylor University Marketing & Communications

WACO, Texas (Sept. 17, 2020) – What takes place inside a person when they encounter beautiful pieces of art? While most people would acknowledge being moved by aesthetic and artistic beauty, the changes sparked by such an engagement seem beyond the realm of measurement. Two Baylor psychology and neuroscience researchers, however, are working to change that.

Baylor researchers Sarah Schnitker, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, and Wade Rowett, Ph.D., professor of psychology, along with Kutter Callaway, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, have earned a grant from the Templeton Religious Trust (TRT) to create a theoretical model to quantify, in psychological terms, the functional impact of art. The $234,499.95 grant, awarded through TRT’s “Art Seeking Understanding” research focus, will support interdisciplinary research. The research process it supports will combine scientific methods in human behavior and cognition, experimental psychology, art studies and theology to develop a model for the systematic testing of the ways art promotes spiritual understanding and facilitates human virtues like empathy, compassion and more.

“The big-picture idea is that human beings can learn things through aesthetic artistic encounters that are unique, that impact us in a different way than reading a book or listening to a podcast,” Schnitker said. “There is something about this engagement that uniquely affects us, especially as it relates to what we might call spiritual understanding. We want to isolate what it is about encountering a piece like the ‘Mona Lisa’ or a beautiful building like the National Cathedral that sparks something inside a person and can impact the ways they perceive God.”

The title of the research project — Measuring the (Im)measurable: A Psychological Model of the “Something More” that Humans Encounter in and through Art — highlights the challenge. To account for the wide array of subtle artistic and personally subjective qualities that can impact a person’s experience with a piece of art, researchers will use experimental psychology measurement methods and a variety of visual artistic pieces designed to isolate how different types of visual composition can spark different feelings or attitudes inside an individual.

Visual art will serve as the anchor for the research. An artist will be commissioned to take photographs of both high artistic value and less artistic value to enable researchers to measure reactions to photographs of different aesthetic quality. For instance, the “golden spiral” is a balanced composition guide that helps lead the viewer throughout a photo and is considered pleasing to the viewer. Some photographs will be constructed with golden spiral characteristics, while others will not be composed with this or other aesthetic methods.

As research participants view the pictures, they will answer questions designed to gauge their perspective, empathy, abstraction, feelings of transcendence, compassion and more. Photos of various artistic quality will enable researchers to compare the answers and search for differences based on encounters with photos of higher versus lesser artistry. Research methods based in social cognition and human perception also will account for individual preconceptions, framing, artistic backgrounds, religious backgrounds and more.

“There seems to be something about art in different forms that helps people process things or gain insights they would not receive from just reading or thinking. But with art, it is difficult to get something objective,” Rowatt said. “As psychologists, we design studies to test broad theories, but with testable predictions. “So, we might ask a question like, ‘Does engagement with the arts increase perspective-taking, empathy or a sense of connectedness?’ Or, we could test something more specific, like the way a particular photo facilitates the processing of grief in ways that other forms of processing cannot.

“We are trying to figure out how it facilitates understanding, insight or something deeper than that.”

The project is further designed to examine a person’s perception of the Divine when experiencing art, and aspects of the research will seek to glean explicitly religious insights. Many questions will focus on the participant’s beliefs about various aspects of God and measure how those shift after engagements with artistically composed photos. However, Schnitker said that the research is designed to study what can be measured through psychological science: people.

“We’re not in the business of measuring God or another person’s spiritual activity,” Schnitker said, “but we can measure what is taking place for that person as they engage with art. We can measure how they respond emotionally, physiologically and more.”

The pilot phase of the research begins this fall. Templeton Religious Trust later will award larger grants from a pool of grants that includes Baylor’s research team.

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