Yesterday, Ilse van de Groep was interviewed by Radio 1 presenter Myrthe van der Drift. During the interview, they discussed the recent increase in juveline delinquency, the RESIST project and how juvenile delinquency is influenced by the current COVID crisis. You can listen to the interview here.

Humans have the fundamental need to be socially connected with others. It is known that being connected with others has strong positive effects on one’s wellbeing. However, during the pandemic all of us experience less face-to-face interactions and, thus, less social connection due to social distancing. Because the younger generation may experience the most restrictions on their daily social lives, one can argue that these young individuals are affected most by the pandemic. What does it mean for adolescents to spend more time alone, while it is so important for them to spend time with their peers?

The art of connection
During adolescence, interactions with peers become more important than interactions with family members. Adolescence can be seen as a transitional phase from childhood to adulthood with social challenges and behavioral changes. During this formative phase for social development, adolescents experience novel social situations with their peers. Being connected with their peers and friends is especially important for adolescents, because it helps them to navigate through a more complex social world. This, in turn, helps them to develop into a socially well-functioning adult with caring and mature social relations. Indeed, peer interactions and friendships during this developmental period are associated with positive short and long-term effects, such as higher resiliency, better school performance, more adaptive social skills, and better mental health.

The art of solitude
Even though social interactions and peer relationships are important for adolescents, alone-time can also be beneficial for their development. Some argue that adolescents need this alone-time to deal with their developmental tasks, since adolescence also represents a time of discovering oneself. Solitude can therefore be helpful at times. Several benefits, which may be of particular importance for adolescents during their formative years, are being mentioned in the literature:

Emotion regulation: solitude can play a role in the self-regulation of emotions and thoughts. Spending time alone can help people to reduce their negative affects, such as anxiety.

Self-awareness: solitude is also a time to reflect on and to process experiences and thoughts. These self-focused experiences can in turn increase self-awareness (i.e., the awareness of one’s own thoughts and feelings), which is an adaptive ability for adolescents to have.

Creativity: creative work can be achieved by spending time alone. Adolescents are known for their creativity and ‘out of the box’ thinking. Alone-time can help adolescents to develop and utilize their creativity.

Identity development: solitude serves as an opportunity to explore one’s identity, because it creates time and space to reflect on your emotions, thoughts and experiences. This may be of particular importance during adolescence, since establishing one’s identity is a crucial task in this developmental period.

“The value of time alone rises particularly during adolescence, when it is useful for emotional restoration, pursuit of autonomous activities, and teenagers’ development of interests and identities.”

(Nugyen, Weinstein, & Ryan, in press)

One important thing to point out is the role of motivation on spending time alone. There is quite a difference between being alone and choosing to be alone. It is known that there are more positive and less negative effects when alone-time is voluntary. Even though social distancing during the pandemic forces us to spend more time alone, knowing the benefits of alone-time can help in this regard.

Take-home message
The challenge for adolescents during these times is to deal with the solitude they may be experiencing. I hope I got the message of the art of both situations across: each has its own advantages. My message to young individuals is therefore to find a balance between spending time alone and connecting with others. Make the most out of each situation.

Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529. doi: 10.1037/0033.2909.117.3.497
Blakemore, S.-J., & Mills, K.L. (2014). Is adolescence a sensitive period for sociocultural processing? Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 187-207. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115202
Lam, C.B., McHale, S.M., & Crouter, A.C. (2014). Time with peers from middle childhood to late adolescence: Developmental course and adjustment correlates. Child Development, 85, 1677-1693. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12235
Musetti, A., Corsano, P., Majorano, M., & Mancini, T. (2012). Identity processes and experience of being alone during late adolescence. International Journal of Psychoanalysis and Education, 4.
Nguyen, T.T., Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2017). Solitude as an approach to affective self-regulation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 92-106. doi: 10.1177/0146167217733073
Nguyen, T.T., Weinstein, N., & Ryan, R.M. (in press). The possibilities of aloneness and solitude: Developing an understanding framed through the lens of human motivation and needs. Manuscript submitted for publication.
van Harmelen, A.-L., Kievit, R.A., Ioannidis, K., Neufeld, S., Jones, P.B., Bullmore, E., … Goodyer, I. (2017). Adolescent friendships predict later resilient functioning across psychosocial domains in a healthy community cohort. Psychological Medicine, 47, 2312-2322. doi: 10.1017/S0033291717000836

During the summer break I took a moment to reflect on this year’s struggles; the worldwide pandemic crisis, the racial injustice, how the racism debate (although how can racism still be a debate?) keeps polarizing us instead of bringing us together, and of course climate change it is still here and real… I thought we had seen it all for 2020, this must be it, but then a few days ago I read the devastating twitter message that Chadwick Boseman* passed away after a four-year battle against cancer. That tweet has become the most-liked tweet ever.

Purpose and legacy
You may wonder why, in the light of the current public health and economic threats, the death of an actor whom I have never met in my life mattered so much. As I was going through the social media posts I tried to grasp my mind around the fact that Chadwick was determined to serve the community, our collectively utter need of true representation, while battling cancer privately. He served a higher purpose and encouraged others to do the same. In his own words: purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history.” He used his valuable and precious time to motivate and inspire others through his movie roles. His impact, especially on the next generation, was beyond our awareness. In the days to come children started holding funerals and memorials with their Avengers action figures as a tribute to their superhero.I could not help myself but feel sad and shed a small tear as I saw those heartbreaking images of Black children mourning the loss of a King, a superhero with a face that finally looked like them.

The importance of role models
Growing up many of us have had questions like ‘who inspires you?’, ‘who do you look up to?’, or ‘who do you admire the most?’. They may sound as cliché questions, but the underlying reasoning is still relevant. Having a role model can have positive influences on your motivation and the realization that you can reach certain goals. There are three distinct functions that role models can serve. They can act as:
1. behavioural models –> facilitate skill acquisition through vicarious learning
2. representations of the possible –> increase motivation by changing self-stereotypes
3. inspirations –> adoption of new goals by identification and admiration

One of the simplest way to act as a role model is by helping somebody achieve an already existing goal. The focus here is on learning how to do something rather than noticing that something is possible. For instance a father showing his son how to shave for the first time, or a high school mentor coaching a student on time management. It is through social learning that the other person acquires skills and knowledge.

In underrepresented groups role models can act more as representations of the possible. The value of role models in underrepresented groups might therefore even be higher than for others. For example, female college students are known to be more positively affected by same-gender role models, especially in areas where females form the minorities such as in mathematical sciences. Having a role model with shared attributes, such as similarity or shared group membership, can help you change perceived barriers and self-stereotyping. However the extent to which this will take place partly depends on attainability. Attainability is defined as the degree to which someone can see him or herself being like the role model in the future. Believing that you have the potential to be like your role model will positively contribute to the process of breaking down barriers and changing stereotypes, and increases the motivation to reach an existing or new goal. To all the girls and young women reading this you might actually be the next Katherine Johnson in the making.**

Role models can also function as inspirations. I remember when Black Panther hit the theaters and people all over the world were dressing up as they went to see the release in cinemas. To be honest I regret not doing the same. The dressing up was a way of celebrating not only its enormous success, but merely its existence as it was one first time that the beauty and accomplishments of the African nation were fully portrayed instead of focusing solely on the struggles and the suppression of Black people. Black children now had King T’Challa with whom they could identify and Wakanda suddenly embodied our strive to something new and better, a thriving African nation. People felt inspired.

Can I become a role model myself?
The simple answer is: YES! It is a common misconception that role models belong to a selected group of well-known individuals with a celebrity status and successes highlighted by their fame. Surely they get more attention, but if you take a moment you will realize that also in your more direct environment there might be people who motivate and inspire you. Parents and caregivers are too a commonly named group of role models. Although not surprising as during childhood parents play an important role in shaping their children’s behaviour, teaching them skills and important life lessons, it is still important to acknowledge it. In addition other people can also play a role in forming a child’s identity and the moral and ethical values he or she upholds. This could be a neighbor, a dear friend, or a teacher. Hence, you too could be a role model to someone in your close environment.

Simply remember that you do not have to be perfect, we all have our good and bad moments. You do not have to have all the answers.  Remind the other person that learning from mistakes is important. It is exactly those learning moments that can have a positive influence on others. But first, have you already thought about your purpose in life?

*Chadwick Boseman played iconic and memorable roles in movies like 42, Marshall, Da 5 Bloods. Internationally most of us will remember him as superhero King T’Challa in the Avengers movie Black Panther. It was not until his death that we learned that he shot this and other movies while battling cancer.

**Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician at NASA, whose calculations were very important for the success of the first American orbital spaceflight in 1962.

“Don’t you feel embarrassed wearing a mask like that?” a 12-year-old asks while listening to the explanation of the MRI procedure. Strange but true: this isn’t an uncommon question in my life nowadays. During a global pandemic in which the importance of science has become increasingly clear, we are lucky enough to be able to continue our MRI data collection, resulting in quotes like this. In this blog, I will explain some of the challenges and positive aspects of how we are able to collect MRI data in these challenging times.

My PhD project is part of the longitudinal twin study of the Leiden Consortium on Individual Development in which we follow 250 twins from seven to 13 years old. At the beginning of 2020, when COVID-19 started to invade our lives, I was in the middle of collecting the third wave of MRI data in this group. We had to pause our data collection, but were allowed to restart again in July. We optimistically called our restarted data collection the “post-corona” wave (not knowing that we weren’t done with lockdowns yet, but we can always change the name to “post-corona_2.0_FV_ForReal”, right?). Next, we adjusted our procedures to follow the guidelines of the hospital and RIVM. Of course, there were some things we had to get used to in our renewed protocol. For example, we have to be aware that we’re wearing face shields all the time: I know I am not the only one who forgot I was wearing one while trying to drink my coffee… Also, we have to make sure we clean all materials after a lab visit, so I am now an expert in noticing EVERYTHING someone touches. Finally, we are constantly calculating how to keep our distance towards every other person in the room, which turns out to be an excellent training for our spatial insight.

However, collecting data in these times also comes with a lot of uncertainty. The number of cancellations has increased enormously, since no one is allowed to participate with even the slightest cough or running nose. It often happens that we start the week with six lab visits on the planning and only one or two of them can actually take place. On the other hand, we also have to be prepared to stand in as “back-up” in case one of our researchers doesn’t feel well. This asks for flexibility, switching plans for the day and constantly being aware that the rules of the hospital might change. On the bright side, however, we are learning skills that will be valuable later in life as well. For example, I noticed that even though the uncertainty can lead to a good amount of stress, it is becoming easier for me to get over my frustration and come up with solutions. It helps that we have an amazing team of researchers who are always willing to step in and cheer each other up. When the uncertainty of whether we can continue strikes again, we have various coping mechanisms within our team that help to keep us going, such as sending hilarious memes in our Slack channel, laughing the stress away or baking cookies to bring to another scan session (we don’t mind this coping strategy!).

Additionally, because of the uncertainty and extra effort we’re putting into this data collection right now, we feel even more grateful for every successful lab visit and for the enthusiastic involvement of the participating families. Whereas collecting data in such a large longitudinal project can already feel like running a marathon in ‘normal’ times, our marathon during COVID-19 has a lot of obstacles along the way. So, we might not always go fast, but at least we’re moving forward! And to be honest, my data collection day sometimes feels like the event of the week, being allowed to leave the house and seeing my colleagues in real life again. Sitting next to the MRI scanner, there is finally enough time to question your colleagues on things you’ve always wanted to know (“What is your favorite scanner sound?”) and for good small-talk conversations that will be interrupted every five minutes when a scan is finished. And at the end of the day, I can go home with the always-inspiring quotes of participants in mind (e.g. “And what did you like most today?” – “The cookie during the break”) and assure myself that I’ve been very productive.

Even though it can at times feel like a challenging crash course in flexibility, we are aware that we are in a unique situation collecting MRI data right now. When we are finished, we will have (MRI) data of our participants pre-, during and (hopefully) post-corona, giving us the possibility to study the effect of the pandemic on both behavioral and brain development. So far, we were able to collect data of 250 participants, meaning we are slowly moving towards the end. I can’t wait to start diving into the data and tell you about our findings soon!

By Philip Brandner

The Scorpion and the Frog
An old Russian fable tells the story of a Scorpion and a Frog. The scorpion, who can’t swim, asks a frog to carry it across the river sitting on its back. The frog hesitates, knowing the danger of playing piggyback with a deadly scorpion. With a smooth voice, the scorpion declares that she wouldn’t dare sting the frog, what would be the use, she asks. “We would both drown”. The frog, a sensible amphib, considers the scorpion’s words and finally agrees to help her. Pleased with his compassion for a stranger the frog takes the scorpion on its back and pushes off the river bank. Halfway to the other side, the frog feels an icy hot sting and a wearing pain down it’s spine. With the scorpion’s neurotoxins racing through the frog’s veins he utters one final question: “Why did you do this? You killed us both!” The scorpion, now drowning, simply replies: “I’m a scorpion.”

Does human nature exist?
Just like the scorpion couldn’t help but be a scorpion, do all of us have a lumpy black core of human nature in our hearts? We are clearly more complicated than a simple arachnid. Our cultures and cities, art and science, and our creativity and uniqueness have lifted us way beyond other animals. It seems we have escaped our Darwinian shackles but is there a thread that ties us all together as humans?

The sheer difference between human cultures across the globe speaks to our adaptability. We are the only animals to live on all continents and across all climates. There even seems to be a neuroscientific reason for our flexibility as a species. The most frontal parts of our brain (the prefrontal cortex), and arguably the parts that make us uniquely human, are mostly shaped after birth and well into the teenage years. This means environmental factors such as parenting, education, and social interactions have a bigger influence on the frontal cortex than genes. If the part of the brain that is most unique to humans receives most of its inputs from societal factors, it seems only reasonable to assume we, above all animals, are uniquely shaped by culture. Does our cortex development free us from genetic determinism? Let’s try to answer this question by looking at recent evidence from different cultures, babies, our brains, and evolution.

Modern anthropology found similar habits and behaviors across all cultures. No known human society flourishes by telling its members to find a cave to isolate in and avoid other people (like scorpions might). Similarly, all human societies have some forms of abstractions and language, rituals for the dead, rules for food consumption and sexual relationships, murder, aggression, and warfare. While there is an overwhelming number of distinctive human societies, they are not infinitely different or random. And why would they be?

Even in newborn babies, we can already see certain universal biases and behaviors. Young babies have a bias for animated, moving objects, and human faces. Clever experiments reveal a rudimentary theory of mind, perceiving, and predicting other people’s intentions. This seems to be happening automatically if given the chance and becomes most obvious when this framework is not functioning fully, as in autism spectrum disorder. Humans, it seems, are innately drawn to other people and we are constantly trying to figure each other out. Something in our brains nudges us towards focusing on and perceiving other people as actors in the world with intentions of their own.

How can our brains be shaped towards a theory of mind if our prefrontal cortex is so plastic and almost exclusively influenced by environmental factors? The brain’s plasticity indeed allows for high degrees of flexibility. But to assume that the entire human brain is limitless in its adaptability to societal influences is wrong. Even within the neocortex (the thin outermost layer at the surface of the brain), certain regions are highly specialized on one particular task from birth. The fusiform face area is such a region. If a baby sustains an injury to this part of the brain it will struggle to recognize faces for the rest of its life. With other parts of the brain (i.e. brainstem, cerebellum) even less malleable than the cortex, it seems that despite an Olympian-level of plasticity, our brain is not a blank slate, awaiting sensory information, to be filled. Prior guidelines seem to exist and these systems must be guided by our genes.

The long, slow-moving arm of evolution seems to have caught up with us. Humans are not living in a kingdom of heaven, floating above the animals and their deterministic instincts. The only honest way of looking at us is to place humans firmly in the lineage of social primates with all their evolutionary baggage. Natural selection, moving at a glacial pace, has shaped our genes, which in turn guide our neurodevelopment. Our brains, extremely adaptive but constrained, govern our emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Human nature does exist.

Does it matter?
Even if human nature exists, why should we care? Modern human society is such a multifaceted, complicated tapestry of cultures and peoples that our evolutionary ancestry hardly matters anymore. We remain the most adaptive and fast-maturing species on the planet. I believe, that by not just begrudgingly accepting our nature, but embracing this new-found understanding of what it means to be human we get the opportunity to improve modern society. We’re all carrying a scorpion on our back. Most of the time we forget about its existence and swim freely in the river but there is no use in pretending it doesn’t exist. Aggression, tribalism, addiction, jealousy, fear; in whatever form it reveals itself to us, we’d be better off using our understanding of what it means to be human to our own advantage.

A recent example, might help illustrate the point. The founding engineers at Facebook, Google, and Apple unanimously thought that as long as everyone has access to information and can communicate with everyone else in the world, humanity would be better off. They built newsfeeds, like-buttons, and personalized recommendations convinced that they are improving all our lives. 15 years later the situation looks less utopian. The level of addiction to these services, especially in children and teenagers, coupled with ever evolving machine-learning algorithms feeding us whatever keeps us hooked the longest has led to increased suffering. Turns out we were not evolved to be engaged by nuanced and level-headed discussions about geopolitical issues or fringe information about the potential famine of millions of people we have never met, in a country we couldn’t point to on a map. We are hooked by airbrushed images of our friends and the hottest new celebrity, by enraging stories of people who look or think differently than us, and by products and short-term rewards we are craving. None of this should have been a surprise.

Are we all scorpions in our heart of hearts? No. As a species, we are unique in our ingenuity and potential for progress. The inventions of language, a scientific understanding of the universe, and modern technology are our superpowers. I do believe we have the potential to keep improving our existence and the lives of every single person on earth. And I believe the best way of embarking on that journey across the wide river of human possibility is by accepting that we all have scorpion elements within us.

De corona maatregelen hebben het leven van jongeren en kinderen veel veranderd. Als jongere heb je behoefte om de wereld te ontdekken, veel nieuwe vrienden te maken en om iets goeds te doen voor je omgeving, hoe klein ook. Dat zag je ook tijdens de coronacrisis, waar er in rap tempo allerlei initiatieven zijn opgezet. Van kleine dingen als boodschappen doen voor de (oudere) buurvrouw, tot grotere initiatieven waarbij voedselpakketten worden gemaakt en verspreid door jongeren.

Eveline Crone doet samen met haar collega’s Renske van der Cruijsen en Suzanne van de Groep onderzoek naar hoe de hersenen zich ontwikkelen en hoe dat invloed heeft op wat we denken en doen in de maatschappij. Eveline en haar collega’s zijn daarom op zoek naar jongeren die ideeën en vragen hebben over hoe jongeren meer betrokken kunnen worden bij wat we nú kunnen doen om stráks beter uit deze crisis te komen. Wat voor kansen zijn er om gezamenlijk meer te bereiken? Hoe kunnen we op een slimme manier het schoolsysteem beter maken? Kunnen we via een virtuele stad meer voor andere betekenen? In wat voor wereld willen jongeren zelf het liefst wonen?

Heb jij een vraag over dit onderwerp? Stel je vraag hier.


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While the COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for months now and we are getting into different situations than we are normally used to – such as working from home – many of us try to detect why we feel differently before and after the virus jumped into our lives. But how good are we in detecting the rush of emotions? The same expression can relate to multiple types of emotions and the same emotion can also relate to different facial expressions. Therefore, it is important to differentiate between detecting emotions and perceiving emotions. As Barret explains, emotions are not already integrated from birth. In contrast, emotions are integrated by your brain from three relevant factors – (1) the predicting brain, (2) the body that causes mood and (3) the concepts learned by language and culture.

The predictive brain
Our brain is using experiences from the past to predict current experiences. We try to predict what, for instance, clapping hands without sound, winning a discussion with your brother you’ve yet to have or the speed of a ball coming towards you on the tennis court, is most like from experiences in the past. Many predictions can be made at a micro level – we predict how much glucose, salt and water our body needs. On a macro level, we predict for instance in a friendly interaction that two friends laugh at each other – one of the two smiles first in expectation of the other one’s smile. These predictions are automatic and make sense of our context in a very fast and efficient way. The reason why we all have to know why our brain predicts instead of reacts is if we understand how things works, we are also able to improve them. The predictive brain is used to process your moods and related concepts, which are needed to figure out what type of emotions are present in a specific context.   

Did you notice how you started your day today? Energetic, happy or maybe a bit down? Did you receive another notification on your mobile phone of the new COVID-19 infections which may have made you feel helpless? Our mood influences what we experience in the world. Mood exists to create a bridge between the budget of your body – hormones, glucose, water, immune system – and the brain and consists of two dimensions with a certain amount of high/low energy and pleasant/unpleasant valence. We are constantly wondering whether for instance a stomach ache in combination with an upcoming national press conference means you are nervous or whether a stomach ache in combination with breakfast time means that you just need to eat. Every individual is in some sort of mood due to how little they slept over night or having family issues at home, which is used to construct all our waking moments. Maybe something to keep in mind the next time someone accidently bumps into you on the street within your 1.5-meter personal space during COVID-19.

Words play an important role in efficiently labeling concepts, so that we can easily communicate and share these concepts with other individuals. The brain creates concepts when it predicts about what it might be like. You can see the concepts as the “drawn” boundary lines learned by language and culture which allow us humans to make concepts “real”by sharing them in our communication. An example which relates to this – a rainbow is actually a continuum of light that has no borders, we create these borders to call it red, violet or blue. People who speak Mandarin Chinese draw many more lines on the rainbow palette than Europeans, and therefore, create more words to share their concept. All people on the world see the same rainbow, however they may classify it into different colors depending on their language and culture.

Back to emotion perception
Just like colors, emotions are created from concepts which are the predictions that provide insight on your mood in a specific context. The words we use for emotions are just shortcuts of concepts so we can communicate quick and efficiently. However, we have more concepts of emotions in our brain than we have words for: “The pandemic is causing me to work from home, it is causing me a lot more effort to collect MRI data for my PhD project while my time is ticking away, it is also causing me more time to focus since I don’t have to worry about travel time to work anymore and it is causing me to realize even more to think about each other and help another when that person is not in a great place”. How do we put this concept into one specific emotion? Sad, plane, down, overwhelmed, relieved, hormonal, tired, happy, confused, or grateful? Perhaps we need more than these basic words so that our rush of emotions become a little more defined. Especially in times like these, we can increase our emotional vocabulary. With an increased vocabulary, we can have more skills and possibilities for development in perceiving emotions. If you are not able to predict emotions right away, you are still in the experiential blindness phase. It takes courage to endure the experiential blindness because we don’t like uncertainty. Yet, at the same time it is this place of uncertainty where creativity and innovation emerge. Subsequently, creativity and innovation can be used to introduce new concepts. However, can we also improve our negative emotions when we are feeling down, crappy or upset after our Prime Minister of the Netherlands tells the people we are entering a second lockdown? Yes, by changing our context we can change our mood – in our SYNC lab we call this the energizers.

We recently went around the room in our zoom and shared some of our things we do when we are in need of energy or different moods. Do you need some inspiration? For some people a walk around the neighborhood is enough, for others a get together with a friend can change their mood. For me, a good sport exercise or paying my attention to something else by listening to music for instance always helps. In addition, changing your scenery by spending the weekend on the beach or in nature will never harm. When we change our context, we change our mood and therefore change our predictions of our emotions.

Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Barrett, L. F., & Russell, J. A. (Eds.). (2014). The psychological construction of emotion. Guilford Publications.
Barrett, L. F., Mesquita, B., & Gendron, M. (2011). Context in emotion perception. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5), 286-290.
Barrett, L. F. (1998). Discrete emotions or dimensions? The role of valence focus and arousal focus. Cognition & Emotion, 12(4), 579-599.
Gendron, M., Lindquist, K. A., Barsalou, L., & Barrett, L. F. (2012). Emotion words shape emotion percepts. Emotion12(2), 314.
Gross, J. J., & Feldman Barrett, L. (2011). Emotion generation and emotion regulation: One or two depends on your point of view. Emotion review, 3(1), 8-16.

A few years ago, when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the paintings on display caught my attention. It was Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, by Jackson Pollock. Or rather, I was drawn by the many different ways in which people seemed to interact with the work. Some people appreciated the seemingly soothing patterns and fractals, while others mainly admired Pollock’s innovative action painting technique. While I tried to remember what I learned about Pollock during my art history classes in high school, I heard a woman voice her opinion about the painting: “I don’t understand why people like this painting, I feel like my child could have made this”. Even today, I still sometimes think about her remark. It makes sense that people enjoy most types of art: beautiful depictions of landscapes may remind you of nature’s beauty, listening to music can deeply move you, and portraits are often aesthetically pleasing. But seemingly meaningless splatters of paint? Why are some people drawn to abstract art whereas others are not? And what does this tell us about how we value art?

Autumn Rhythm, Number 30 by Jackson Pollock (1950).

The Treachery of Images, René Magritte (1929)

The treachery of the images: representation vs. visual properties and patterns?
One explanation that has been put forward to explain why (some) people like abstract art is that our brains are attracted to certain visual patterns and visual properties. Quite often, abstract art depicts such patterns, even though the work itself is not a representation of something concrete. Interestingly, some research indeed corroborates this idea, by showing that Pollock’s work is characterized by fractal dimensions, resembling patterns found in nature. Because there is no representational meaning in abstract art, it seems sensible that mainly the sensory properties of the work would inform how we value it. However, a recent study suggests that people don’t actually prefer abstract paintings based on their visual properties, but rather differentiate between paintings based on the verbal descriptions people use to describe them. Similarly, another study showed that how we value art is actually greatly informed by the intentionality we attribute to its maker. When we think back to the individual differences in valuation of the Pollock painting we observed earlier, these findings – and the idea that there’s more to appreciating art than visual input – make sense. After all, if our valuation would just be a function of sensory properties, shouldn’t all people like abstract art equally?

This is not a fake: our beliefs about artworks can change how we perceive and evaluate them
Clearly, when we look at (abstract) art, we take more factors into account than merely the visual sensory input. Contextual factors, such as our educational background, personal experiences and previous exposure to the artworks and their historical context likely also play an important role. This also becomes clear from studies on art forgeries: we perceive and evaluate a piece of art differently when we learn it is a forgery. We perceive genuine works to be more beautiful, larger and they appear closer to us – and are thought to have more monetary value. But above all, we seem to prefer authentic works because of their essentialism: their identity or value are determined by their history (like the way you might value a wedding ring). There is something important about them that cannot be observed in the visual properties. Interestingly, we can also observe that there is more to art than visual sensory input in the brain, when we look at how people value authenticity in paintings. Although the visual areas of our brains do not respond differently to artworks that are labeled as authentic or fake, greater activity was found in frontal brain areas when people looked at authentic paintings. These brain areas have been associated with more complex cognition and reward processing.

Why are some people drawn to (abstract) art whereas others are not? It turns out that, while we might appreciate certain patterns and fractals, the visual properties of the art are not necessarily what captivate us. Instead, contextual factors, such as prior experiences and knowledge about the painting,  are likely much more important in determining why we like a painting*. Thus, we like (abstract) art because it matters to us, instead of what we see. 

* Clearly, there is more to art than just paintings. However, most research conducted in this area uses (1) models that focus on the visual modality and (2) paintings are often the (visual) stimuli used in studies on art.

PhD Candidate Ilse van de Groep has written a blog (in Dutch) for NeurolabNL about antisocial behavior during the current crisis. Together with Resist project research assistant Merel Spaander, she explains why youth show (more of) this type of behavior during the lockdown, and why it is particularly important to help the most vulnerable amongst them.