Theses Doctoral

The Beholder’s Share: Bridging Art and Neuroscience to Study Subjective Experience

Durkin, Celia

Our experience of the world is subjective–we are constantly interpreting the world around us according to what we have already perceived, experienced, and learned. How we interpret the world–and how we draw on prior experience to do so–is studied in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, theorized about in philosophy, and explored in the arts. To study subjective interpretation, we combine multiple disciplines – using behavioral paradigms from cognitive neuroscience and psychology in order to test an overarching framework of subjective interpretation that arose in art history–the Beholder’s Share. In this dissertation, I present three studies that investigate the behavioral and neural phenomena of the Beholder’s Share.

I begin, in Chapter 1, by giving an overview of the Beholder’s Share and its intersections with theories of the mind and brain. I then discuss our approach to studying the Beholder's Share; namely, by measuring cognitive and neural responses to abstract and representational art by the same artist, as a key prediction following from the Beholder’s Share is that it will be different for abstract and representational art. Following this, I then present a review of the literature that has begun to characterize the cognitive and neural responses to abstract and representational art, and the open questions we address in our studies.

Chapter 2 presents a behavioral study that leverages the well-established theory of mental representations–Construal Level Theory (CLT). Drawing from CLT, we develop a behavioral paradigm that reliably characterizes differences in mental representations between abstract art and representational art, showing that abstract art evokes more abstract, context-independent representations than representational art. This study serves to establish reliable and measurable differences in the subjective experience of abstract and representational art, and yields a task that can be used to elicit these differences.

Chapter 3 describes a study that combines behavior and fMRI, and takes advantage of advancements in multivariate analysis methods of brain activity and models of natural language processing to capture the Beholder’s Share in neural activity and written descriptions. This study demonstrates that both neural and semantic representations evoked by abstract paintings are more subject-unique than those evoked by representational paintings. Moreover, subject-unique patterns of brain activity are present in the Default Mode Network, a set of brain regions thought to be involved in internally oriented cognition. This study demonstrates that participants contribute personal associations to abstract paintings more than to representational paintings, and links this process to brain regions involved in higher-level cognitive processes.

Chapter 4 examines the role of prior experience in subjective interpretation. I present a study in which we induced different prior experiences with an emotional autobiographical memory induction and measured the effects of that manipulation in written descriptions of abstract paintings. This study shows that abstract paintings are more vulnerable to manipulations in prior experiences, as well as individual differences in naturally occurring experiences, measured by self-report.

Together, these results suggest that abstract paintings are interpreted more subjectively than representational paintings. This process of subjective interpretation recruits regions of the brain involved in internally oriented cognition (the DMN) and involves drawing on prior experiences. These results, and the methods we used to obtain them, have implications for understanding subjective experience and cognition more fully. Chapter 5 situates these results in the broader discussion of how we study subjectivity, and carves out a role for the Beholder’s Share in future research characterizing individual differences.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Shohamy, Daphna
Kandel, Eric
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 26, 2023