Eye-tracking Research at M

The Power of Images

Eye-tracking Research at M

I see, I see what you don’t see

Did you see it? This question is sometimes difficult to answer. And as it happens, not everyone sees the same way. Everybody sees things differently. And this makes looking at art and the experience of art unique.

There is no better place than a museum to research exactly how people look at art and analyse the processes that are involved in the interpretation and appreciation of an image. That is why M organized an experiment, in cooperation with the Laboratory for Experimental Psychology at KU Leuven, which maps the sight-DNA of one hundred museum visitors. Prof. Dr. Johan Wagemans and Hélène Verreyke, Head of Exhibitions Old Masters provide more information.

How do you look at art?

By tracking eye movements, you can chart the tableaux, colours and contrasts on which your eye focuses unconsciously. Prof. Dr. Johan Wagemans: “Looking does not occur in one glance. In one single second, the eye stops two to four times. The rest of the time, the eye moves constantly.” Sight profiles differ from person to person due to the number of fixations and the number and length of eye movements. In addition, there are important differences in what people look at; not only details, but also the nature of the sight trajectory as a whole.

Prof. Dr Johan Wagemans: “Some people look at things very systematically from the upper-left to the bottom-right and do this irrespective of the images that they look at. Other people’s eye movement patterns encompass the whole. In the latter group, you see the eye fixations move to the periphery and then back to the centre. This is repeated constantly from the outside to the inside in order to encapsulate the composition as a whole. By charting eye movement patterns, you can actually visualize the hidden information processing that occurs in the brain.”

Not all people look at things the same way. It is possible to reveal these sight profiles and differences in eye movement behaviour by tracking eye movements. Prof. Dr Johan Wagemans

Right versus wrong

It is impossible to make a distinction between seeing things correctly and incorrectly. It is possible to demonstrate, however, that looking for longer and paying attention to certain details changes your perception of a painting. This offers you new and unconventional ways of seeing things. For example, when you look at art, you can discover more than the theme of a certain work, you can also see the texture of the paint, the use of colour, and the different shades. This way of seeing things offers you extra dimensions of looking at art and experiencing art.

Personal sight-DNA

“A test group of 100 people, from 8 to 78 years old, came to M to chart the way they look at things. Some people’s sight patterns are very systematic and focused, while other people scan. Many of the participants were surprised to discover how they see. Visitors will soon be able to test this themselves in the collection displays,” Hélène Verreyke says. “The museum will thus be able to collect more sight profiles. All of this research data will assist our further research into the way people look at art, which we will be conducting over the next two years.”