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      Connected | May 6, 2019

      Your brain on art

      Dr. Tedi Asher

      Written by

      Dr. Tedi Asher


      This month marks two years since I started my position as the Neuroscience Researcher at PEM.

      We’ve learned and accomplished a lot in that period of time! Among other things, we’ve adopted a framework for thinking about visitor “engagement,” acquired equipment with which to assess visitor engagement as part of our approach to evaluation and run three in-gallery studies to better understand how our visitors relate to the exhibitions that we design. That’s on top of hours spent delving into the neuroscience literature, trying to apply existing research findings to the design of exhibitions.

      visitor drawing in t.c. cannon
      © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum.

      To celebrate these accomplishments, and to share what we’ve learned with the PEM community, this month we will be launching a website devoted to PEM’s Neuroscience Initiative. On this site, you’ll find information about the goals of the Initiative, the approach that we’ve taken to implementing it, and an explanation of how we go about understanding and measuring visitor engagement. By visiting these pages, you’ll also get to meet the team, which includes myself as well as members of our Neuroscience Advisory Committee, among others. As time goes on, we will continue to populate the Neuroscience Initiative website with resources for those interested in learning more about how neuroscience can inform the functionality of an art museum, which will include key findings from our in-gallery visitor studies. Oh, and should you wish to participate in one of our upcoming studies, you’ll be able to sign up for that on the new website too.

      A bit of background

      PEM’s Neuroscience Initiative was developed in pursuit of PEM’s larger mission: “… to create experiences that transform people's lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world.” At the core of this mission is the task of creating experiences – of art, of culture, of humanity. Dan Monroe, PEM’s Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO and originator of the Neuroscience Initiative, reasoned that all experiences are in some way a product of the brain, so perhaps understanding more about how the brain works can facilitate the creation of compelling experiences of art. And so it began.

      Visitor in T.C. Cannon exhibition

      Some history

      PEM’s Neuroscience Initiative began in earnest in 2014 when world-renowned neuroscientists were invited to speak at the museum. In parallel, the use of multisensory experiences were explored in the galleries. And the PEM staff started to think about the different ways our brain processes information. Then, in 2016, PEM received a generous grant from the Barr Foundation to hire a full time neuroscientist.

      Though the objective underpinning the Neuroscience Initiative was to allow findings from the diverse fields of neuroscience to inform many different aspects of a museum’s functionality (marketing, visitor services, programming, etc), we began by focusing on exhibition design and interpretation.

      Within that context, our goals are two-fold: (1) to inform the design of art exhibitions with neuroscientific research findings, and (2) to learn more about the brain by observing our visitors’ reactions to the exhibitions that we create.

      © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      The result, we hope, will be not only more compelling experiences of art for our visitors, but also a step toward bridging the seeming chasm that separate the arts and sciences; two disciplines that I see as addressing many of the same questions about the human experience, using different tools.

      Some logistics

      So, how do we go about doing this; applying neuroscience to exhibition design? Well, we’ve adopted a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, we leverage existing findings in the literature, while on the other, we generate new data by conducting in-gallery studies of our visitors. To do so, we go through a three-phased cycle.

      Phase 1 is a research and hypothesis-formulation phase in which we delve into the literature and identify findings that could be relevant to exhibition design. We then formulate a hypothesis about how to apply those findings to a specific exhibition. Phase 2 is an implementation phase. It is here that we use a range of interpretation and design elements to execute on the hypothesis formulated in Phase 1. We then move into Phase 3: Evaluation. In this phase, we use a mixed-methods approach to assess how the design elements implemented in Phase 2 impacted the visitor experience. We then use the results of the evaluative phase to refine our initial hypothesis; so this process is inherently iterative.



      Defining and assessing visitor engagement

      The goal of all of this, of course, is to enhance visitor engagement. Engagement. How frequently do we use that term without defining it? Fortunately for us, one member of our Neuroscience Advisory Committee, Carl Marci, MD, shared with us a definition of engagement that he has formulated over decades of research in the neuromarketing realm. According to Carl, engagement occurs when one’s attention is directed in a way that elicits an emotional response and leads to the formation of a memory. These three elements of attention, emotion, and memory are central to being engaged.

      As it turns out, the neurosciences have a great deal to teach us about these three elements of engagement. For example, the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman teaches us that our brain processes information using one of two systems, called System 1 and System 2 respectively. System 1 operates quickly and automatically, similar to being on automatic pilot. By contrast, System 2 processes information more slowly and is a conscious process, but requires a great deal of energy. The critical difference between the two modes is that System 2 processing requires attention, that first element of Carl’s definition of engagement. So, how does one go about eliciting the attention necessary for System 2 processing?

      There are two categories of factors that impact our attention: top-down and bottom-up influences. Bottom-up influences are physical in nature; these are the sights, sounds, smells, etc that we perceive from environmental stimuli. Think of the sound of a glass breaking… it turns heads! By contrast, top-down influences on attention are cognitive in nature; these might be the goal with which you perform a specific task or the memories elicited by a particular experience. I think it can be helpful to keep this distinction in mind when creating experiences.What physical features of the experience will draw attention?How can we harness common associations, for example, to direct attention in a certain way?

      Data in the literature reflect, however, that whichever means we employ to guide attention, it needs to elicit an emotional response (the second element of Carl’s definition of engagement). Emotional experiences are privileged: they attract more attention, are processed faster, and remembered better. Emotion, as it turns out, can be broken down into two dimensions: arousal and valence. Arousal refers to the intensity of an emotional experience while valence refers to how pleasant the experience is. Importantly, it’s been demonstrated that it is the level of arousal – of emotional intensity – that is key to forming a memory (the 3rd element of our definition for engagement) of a given experience; the more intense, the more likely we are to remember something.


      So, you can see, then, that neuroscience has a great deal to teach us about this concept of “engagement.” But, how do we go about applying it?

      We’ve implemented a mixed-methods approach to assessing visitor engagement that allows us to monitor each of the three elements of engagement (attention, emotion, memory). We can observe how visitors allocate their visual attention by having them wear mobile eye-tracking glasses; we can measure emotional arousal using biometric techniques such as the galvanic skin response; and we can begin to see what kinds of memories visitors are forming by administering exit surveys or conducting exit interviews following an experience in our galleries.

      neuroscience in the gallery

      © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


      © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
      © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      © 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      In the last year we’ve employed this approach in three in-gallery studies aimed an assessing visitor engagement in each of three different exhibitions. Stay tuned to learn more about the results of these studies! In the meantime, we hope that you’ll visit our new website and maybe even sign up to participate in an upcoming study! And, as always, I’m happy to address any questions you might about our Initiative; just shoot an email to

      Keep exploring


      Neuroscience Initiative

      Past Exhibition

      T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America

      March 3, 2018 to June 10, 2018