Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder—but Memorability May Be Universal

While “interesting” images may tend to be more memorable, says Bainbridge, many other factors influence whether artwork lingers in your mind. Very strong negative emotions, like disgust or fear, will make an experience stick, she says. It’s possible that the researchers didn’t see that particular effect in this study because none of the paintings were truly grotesque or horrifying (as these characteristics would be uncommon in a museum like the Art Institute).

The brain also tends to prioritize surprising, new, and unusual things. “We remember the past so we can predict the future better,” writes Bylinskii. She speculates that certain works of art may become culturally famous because they stand out—whether by being stylistically unique, touching on an unusual subject, or violating expectations. “For these reasons, they get ingrained in people’s brains,” she says.

Now Davis and Bainbridge are trying a new approach to figuring out what makes art memorable: asking artists for help. Bainbridge’s lab is running a contest challenging artists to create their most memorable and forgettable artwork. Submitted pieces will be shown in a gallery, and viewers’ memories will be tested. The pieces that people are most likely to remember (or forget) will win, and hopefully provide some clues about what makes art pop. (Submissions are open to any US-based artist willing to ship their work to Chicago by January 1, 2024.)

Beyond seeing whether artists can figure out what makes an image enduring, Davis hopes to study how memorability is shaped during the art-making process. Artists must include at least five photos of their work in progress. “Adding a brushstroke here or there changes memorability,” Davis says, “so we’re using ResMem to track changes in memorability with every change to the painting.”

Any time we learn about how the human brain prioritizes information, Bylinskii writes, “it creates opportunities for manipulation, toward good or bad outcomes.” ResMem is copyrighted by the University of Chicago, so corporations can’t use it to, for instance, make catchier advertisements. “That helps us go to bed at night,” Bainbridge says. But companies like Fosco’s are already using their own deep learning models to help clients make subtle changes to ad content to boost click rates and recall. Fosco also envisions educators harnessing this science to make slide decks and infographics easier for students to remember.

AI that can predict how much a piece of art will stick with a viewer—and possibly give artists the power to fine-tune their work to cater to their audience—might sound scary to visual artists. Along with generative AI tools like Dall-E, people might fear it will hinder their creative process or expression, Davis says. Davis is often asked whether he’ll apply these findings to his own art, but he says he tries to avoid allowing his neuroscience insight to seep into his creative world. He envisions ResMem as a tool gallery curators and artists could use to hone the presentation of their work, but not as a replacement for their own creative direction.

While exploiting the power of memorability has the potential to threaten artists and anyone who consumes entertainment, Bylinskii believes that figuring out what makes an image stick can also arm people against manipulation. “The solution is not to create less knowledge,” she writes, “but to make the knowledge so widespread that others can recognize when it’s being used against them.”

Update 7-25-2023 3:19 PM: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Zoya Bylinskii’s name and the link to her team’s 2015 study.

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