As a prospective English major with a particular love for poetry, I’ve always wanted to understand the intuitive ways art affects us. So often, I read a piece and find myself completely transported across emotions, locations, even physical feelings by a few words on a page, at a loss for conscious understanding why. I signed up for Professor John Bargh’s “PSYCH 315: The Modern Unconscious” course hoping some of those mysterious unconscious influences would become clearer, but didn’t anticipate just how often art would come into our course. Though I didn’t know it when I signed up, Professor Bargh, a social psychologist and director of Yale’s Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation laboratory, has extensively researched the subtle, unconscious influences shaping our behavior and perception. Seeing the insight Professor Bargh might provide for my questions about the strange ways art moves us, I decided to reach out to him through email to dive deeper into what psychology can tell us about art and what art can tell us about psychology. 

The following interview has been edited and condensed.


I’ve been really happy to see the arts and humanities brought up throughout “The Modern Unconscious.” It’s not uncommon for teachers to make material more accessible through occasional pop culture references, but your course regularly draws connections to poetry, films, and philosophy. Why are references like these important in your teaching?

First, teaching psychology allows the instructor many more real-life, cultural, everyday experience examples than, say, teaching physics or advanced mathematics. Professor Bloom, for example, shows clips from “The Sopranos” and other popular entertainment in his introductory psychology class. The material just lends itself to iconic touchstones in the humanities and arts.  

Second, my own experience is that I sit up and notice when I encounter these great illustrations and examples and then use them in my class and also writing. For example, I just happened to be watching a History Channel documentary on Hell when I was working on experiments involving the psychological effects of warm and cold experiences – like holding a cup of hot versus iced coffee. And the announcer was talking about how odd it was that in the lowest level of Hell, reserved for the worst sinners, the punishment that fit the crime for Dante was to be frozen in ice for all eternity – this in the midst of the otherwise fiery Inferno. So I started putting that example into my class slides. 

You start noticing these examples when you are preparing your class lectures because teaching always involves the motivation or goal to explain the material clearly. And one of the best ways to explain any new concept – new to the student taking the class for the first time – is by analogy or example. Metaphors work so well because they relate an abstract idea to something concrete that is in the person’s common experience. 

Another reason might be that people who go into a field like social psychology, which is all about our subjective experiences in the world, emotions, relationships, strivings, disappointments, are naturally interested in the humanities for the same underlying reasons. One lesson from the humanities and the arts is that there are many paths to the truth, not just science and experiments. The great poets are such because they capture and express deep truths that the rest of us realize and appreciate as soon as we read their poems, and the same with art, these are great works because they resonate within us. There are great philosophers and novelists who express deep truths as well, often long before any scientist demonstrates them. Dante, for example, connected physical experiences of coldness and heat, to the social versions of warmth and coldness, 700 years before neuroscientists using brain imaging showed the two types – physical and social – were actually wired together in the insula, one type automatically activating the other, and vice versa.


What you just said about metaphors working so well “because they relate an abstract idea to something concrete that is in the person’s common experience” reminds me of the subject of embodied cognition your class – for example, the fact that phrases and comparisons which evoke physical sensations catch on much more quickly than others. Could you speak about this unconscious basis for the power of metaphor?

I remember what my book agent told me when I was writing my 2017 book, to describe the physical surroundings in as much concrete detail as possible, so that readers really feel they are there and get a good ‘sense’ (literally) of the surroundings. I was never trained as a writer other than academic science-type writing and didn’t know this. But physical descriptions and terms are so richly connected and associated with our more abstract concepts – and it is only in relatively recent psychological science and neuroscience that direct evidence of these connections have been established. Neuro-imaging of sensory priming – holding something hard or soft, rough or smooth, warm or cold, activates somatosensory areas of the brain – and then when the person makes metaphorically related judgments right afterwards – how ‘difficult’ (‘related to hard’) a question is, how well (‘smoothly’) did an interaction between two people go, how generous, helpful, et cetera (‘warm”) is a person, those somatosensory brain regions are involved in making those judgments. And further, the more they are activated, the more extreme the metaphorically related judgment.  

Developmental psychologists who study language development in children, such as Jean Mandler and others, have argued that the concepts that infants and toddlers first develop about the world are about their direct physical experiences – light and dark, near and far, hard and soft, warm and cold – and that these then are the scaffold or bridge to developing more abstract ‘word’ concepts when language starts to develop a few years later. That is another reason why sensory experiences have such a powerful effect on our basic and more abstract thought – those abstract concepts are associated strongly with our original concepts about the physical world. So, the rest of our lives, when the physical-world concepts are activated by our sensory experiences the activation spreads or ‘primes’ our more abstract concepts – and so, holding something warm makes us tend to act more warmly, eating something sweet is actually shown to cause us to act more ‘sweetly’ to other people, sitting on a hard chair causes us to tend to take a ‘harder’ line in negotiations. It all seems crazy and irrational until you realize it is how our mental life is structured beginning at birth. Those early associations do not go away, they continue to influence us the rest of our lives.


I’ve always believed art impacts us on an intuitive and inexplicable level, but as a teacher and researcher of the unconscious, do you believe psychology might ever give us a full understanding of the way art affects us? Has your own study of the unconscious helped you come to a better understanding of the way any particular works of art affect you?

I think there are some basic cognitive models of memory that shed light on how art affects us, and there is certainly a lot about affective and subjective experience, not to mention how emotion research has taken off in the last 15 years. First, there is a model of memory activation by Hintzman and a related theory of automatic perceptual reactions by Logan, both in the 1980s. Essentially, mental representations are more likely to become activated by external events – let’s say a painting in a museum, for example – to the extent they share features with the incoming information. This opens the door for partial feature overlap so that our internal experience can be only indirectly related to what we are actually seeing. A landscape by Cezanne can evoke some of my memories of the woods and lakes in Michigan where I spent my summers growing up, and then the feelings associated with those memories which have nothing to do with the painting itself but with my emotions and feelings back at that time. This is the embodied emotion and embodied cognition idea, that our bodily states are included in our memories of physical scenes and events – actually, in nearly all of our memories.

This was one of the knocks on behaviorism by the way, by Arthur Koestler in his book “The Ghost in the Machine.” Someone looks at a painting of a French town by Utrillo and has the reaction of anxiety because his child became very sick in a French village on a vacation there and had to go to a hospital. So the behaviorist says the painting was the stimulus (S) that provoked the response (R) and no need for any mental activity. Except, I look at that same painting and suddenly decide that I want French food for dinner and start looking for French restaurants in the vicinity of the museum. And the person next to me looking at the same Utrillo decides her own house needs painting and forms the intention to call a house painter when she gets home. Koestler’s point was that the behaviorist only knows what the “S” was after the fact, after he or she learns what the “R” was. And the “S” is different for different people based on their experience and memories. It is the meaning of the stimulus – requiring internal cognitive processes – that determines the Response, not at all the Stimulus by itself.

That’s why especially abstract art can evoke such different feelings and experiences. There will certainly be individual differences in psychological reactions to art because of differences in those experiences. At the same time, there are also probably universals in our reactions based on shared human experiences, that we all have from birth onwards. Roger Shepard once wrote that we all live on planet Earth and experience three dimensions and also gravity, the sky and stars are up and the ground and water are down. So he thought we’d all share many spatial and physical concepts – and that is another reason why physical experiences and metaphors are so universally powerful. We communicate with each other easily using those terms because we all share the same associations and experiences regarding them (with some exceptions, such as distance-concepts for people who have only experienced dense jungle conditions).

And there are also aesthetic universals such as reactions to sharp lines and angles, probably colors which are typically associated with fire and with coolness.

I have spent a lot of time in art museums in Europe and the U.S., wherever I’ve been able to travel. On my tiny salary at NYU in the 1980s, museums were cheap forms of entertainment, especially for a small town midwesterner who had never seen one outside of Chicago. I ate it all up. I loved modern art and I really appreciated its history – the pushing of boundaries and the new discoveries. Many people laugh at modern or abstract art today, but they don’t realize that at the time it was new and never done or contemplated before. It was a new idea and development, and it pushed the envelope. I lived in New York for 22 years and the museums are what I miss the most – I realize I am not that far away here at Yale, but back then I basically lived in them, and when I lived and traveled in Europe in the 1990s I did the same there. I just let myself react naturally to whatever I was looking at and enjoyed the experiences.

Understanding how people are affected by art is like the rest of psychology: you have general, universals in human experience that allow you predict the average or general person, but then there will be individual differences in life experiences that will add variance too, generating affective reactions that the person will probably not be able to accurately attribute, unless it is obvious as in my Michigan example, and so will probably misattribute, maybe to the quality of the painting itself.

My graduate school advisor, Robert Zajonc, was one of the first to say our affective reactions are immediate and not based on cold calculated cognitive processes, and used abstract art postcards to demonstrate that we knew what we liked, before we could explain why we liked or disliked the art. Darwin and others pointed out that we have those immediate affective reactions for good reasons – to approach what is safe and helpful (food water shelter for example, and friends) and withdraw from those things that are harmful or dangerous.  Immediate guides to action aid survival and affect-emotions-motivations can be lightning-fast.  Art can certainly tap into those immediate affective systems and give us a reaction that is powerful but which we cannot easily explain.


You’ve spoken about the common interest in the human experience which drives both the humanities and social psychology. It seems to me that these two fields are really complimentary, but I don’t have enough experience to know quite how they could inform one another. Are there any lessons you believe the field of psychology can learn from art, and are there any lessons art can learn from psychology?

I’m sure both of these are true. And not just on the level of the experience of art, but also what makes for art that becomes famous or is considered so good that it is placed in museums; that is, the ‘canon’ of great art that is then put into books and taught in classes? A professor at Cornell, James Cutting, has written about this – why are certain paintings in this canon and not others?

But here is the interesting problem with the question of what art can learn from psychology. It is the ‘we don’t want to know’ question. When scientists start to study and explain things that are rich and mysterious like love or humor, or why we believe in God, or the big mysteries and powerful existential themes of life, they get a lot of flak. At some level we just don’t want these mysteries explained and the mechanics revealed. So I don’t know, is it really a good thing for psychology to understand and build a complete mechanical model of our personal reactions to art?   

Can psychology learn from art? I think great art has been there before psychology by centuries – the Dante example is a good one. This highly-attuned and sensitive poet knew all about the connection between physical and social ‘temperatures’ 700 years before neuroscience found it. And Seurat’s pointillism showing how perception could be driven by standing back far enough from patterns of little dots – that is way before vision science understood and studied the same phenomenon. The photographer who was able to use strobe lights to freeze time and show bullets going through apples. revealed to us how our subjective experience of the world is at a certain speed – we don’t see things that are too fast, and we don’t experience causation of one thing to another if it takes too long. We have a narrow window of experience and we don’t just see the world the way it objectively is; if we did then we’d be able to see the fly’s wings move back and forth.

Daniel Blokh |