Art looks different - Semantic and syntactic processing of paintings and associated neurophysiological brain responses.


Department of Basic Psychological Research and Research Methods, University of Vienna, Austria. Electronic address: [Email]


The concept of semantics (meaning) and syntax (structure) seems to be an integral way of how humans perceive and order their environment. Processing natural scenes with semantic or syntactic inconsistencies evokes distinct Event-Related Potentials, ERPs, in the N300/400 and P600, respectively (Vo & Wolfe, 2013). Artworks, however, can by definition use violations of natural relationships as a means of style, especially in surrealist art. To test whether inconsistencies are processed differently in artworks, we presented participants with surrealist paintings containing semantic or syntactic inconsistencies, edited versions without inconsistencies, and as control real photographic versions of each painting. Photographs elicited more pronounced negative ERP amplitudes than paintings in all time windows, N300, N400 and P600. However, the lack of an interaction between image type and inconsistency type indicates that all presented images were processed as artworks, probably due to context effects. The ERPs were largely opposite to those reported previously with everyday life pictures, with syntactic inconsistencies driving the earlier components and eliciting higher amplitudes than semantic ones in the N400, and semantic inconsistencies eliciting a higher amplitude in the P600. We conclude that viewing artworks includes a specific processing mode, entailing syntactic and semantic expectations different from those in natural scenes.


Art-viewing,Event-related potentials,Semantics,Surrealist paintings,Syntax,