ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2018, Vol. 50 ›› Issue (7): 693-702.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2018.00693

• Reports of Empirical Studies •     Next Articles

Influence of aesthetics on unconscious processing of western paintings

Junchen SHANG1,Zhihui LIU1,Wenfeng CHEN2,3(),Xiaolan FU3,4   

  1. 1 School of Psychology, Liaoning Normal University, Dalian 116029, China
    2 Department of Psychology, Renmin University of China, Beijing 100872, China
    3 State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Science, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
    4 Department of Psychology, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • Received:2017-06-15 Published:2018-07-15 Online:2018-05-29


People prefer beautiful visual artworks. Aesthetic experiences to beautiful and ugly images are different. Studies on neuroaesthetics showed different neural responses to beautiful stimuli compared to ugly stimuli. The first stage of aesthetic experience of a visual artwork is visual perception of the stimulus. Most research about aesthetic processing focused on stimuli presented consciously. Little is known about whether aesthetic processing can occur unconsciously. Previous research suggested that both beautiful paintings and attractive faces can elicit activation of the reward circuitry in our brain. Attractive faces break through continuous flash suppression more quickly than unattractive faces. Thus, it is possible that unconscious processing of beautiful paintings is different from that of less beautiful paintings. In two experiments, the present study adopted continuous flash suppression paradigm to investigate whether aesthetic ratings of western paintings influenced the time for stimuli to break suppression. We also compared the suppression effect of achromatic (Experiment 1) and chromatic (Experiment 2) noise pictures.

In Experiment 1, 20 participants (8 females, 12 males) took part in the experiment. The independent variable was aesthetic rating of western paintings (high, average, and low). The achromatic suppression noises were presented to the participants’ dominant eye and continued to flash at 10 Hz. A western painting was presented to the nondominant eye, at either above or below the central cross, with contrast increasing from 0 to 100% within 1s and remaining constant until response. Participants were instructed to respond as accurately and quickly as possible when any part of the painting was detected, and report whether the target was presented above or below the cross. 18 participants (9 females, 9 males) took part in Experiment 2. Experiment 2 was identical with Experiment 1 except that chromatic suppression noises were presented to the dominant eye.

The results of Experiment 1 showed that paintings with low aesthetic ratings took significantly longer time to break into awareness, comparing to paintings with average and high aesthetic ratings. The reaction times were not significantly different between paintings with average and high aesthetic ratings. In Experiment 2, however, the times for breaking suppression were not significantly different among the three categories of paintings. Moreover, the effect of suppression was different between different noises, such that reaction times were longer under suppression by chromatic noises (Experiment 2) than achromatic noises (Experiment 1).

These results suggested different unconscious processing of western paintings with different aesthetic ratings. Similar to attractive faces, paintings with high and average aesthetic ratings were easier to be detected under suppression. Our findings provided evidence that aesthetic processing can occur unconsciously under suppression by achromatic noises. The present study also suggested that the suppression effect of achromatic noises is different from that of chromatic noises. Chromatic noises may interfere with the color information of paintings and disrupt the aesthetic perception of paintings.

Key words: aesthetic judgments, binocular rivalry, continuous flash suppression, western paintings, unconscious processing

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