Art + Empathy Lab

What is it that we feel when we look at a piece of art? Are aesthetic preferences universal or culturally influenced? How does artistic engagement contribute to individual and community health?

These are the questions at the heart of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination's new Art + Empathy research project, led by Ying Wu, Ph.D., research scientist at the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience, and Robert Twomey, Ph.D., artist, engineer, and Clarke Center postdoctoral scholar. While many studies of art engagement have produced fragmented insights, the Clarke Center's Art + Empathy research project will provide a comprehensive perspective of attention, arousal, empathic response, and emotional regulation in real-world encounters with art through a series of in-gallery studies with our partners at the San Diego Museum of Art.

Initial support for this project comes from the California Arts Council's "Research in the Arts" program, which fosters original California-based research to contribute to a growing body of international scholarship about the profound impact that the arts have in many aspects of human experience. Research can lead to the development of crucial tools for the field, and for the information of our legislators and other key decision makers. 

The Art + Empathy project will establish a novel framework for understanding variations in physical and emotional responses to art and how this variability relates to prosocial predispositions and performance in tasks that require empathy and compassion. Researchers are collecting data using a cutting edge multi-modal approach that leverages innovations in wireless and wearable biosensing to monitor brain and heart activity, as well as wearable eye and motion tracking, and computer vision facial expression analysis. These diverse modalities of data, along with participants' own subjective responses, will be combined to better understand how people integrate visual information during art engagement and relate to moving or unsettling aspects of an art encounter. This information will provide an integrated perspective on neurological, physical, and behavioral responses to art that reveals the basis for individual differences in aesthetic engagement and identify the role of cultural differences in art appreciation.
The Clarke Center is one of 10 grantees chosen for the Research in the Arts program. The award was featured as part of a larger announcement from the California Arts Council, with grant funds totaling a projected $24,508,541 for 2018-19, the highest investment in statewide arts programming since the 2000-01 fiscal year.

"Arts and culture are inextricably linked to our humanity," said Nashormeh Lindo, California Arts Council Chair. "They serve as a universal touchpoint for understanding and addressing our societal issues -- dismantling inequity, healing trauma, reframing justice, inspiring truth and shaping futures. The Council is humbled to support the vital work of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination and its passionate efforts to make a better California for us all."