Perceptual flexibility is coupled with reduced executive inhibition in students of the visual arts

Chamberlain, Rebecca; Swinnen, Lena; Heeren, Sarah and Wagemans, Johan. 2018. Perceptual flexibility is coupled with reduced executive inhibition in students of the visual arts. British Journal of Psychology, 109(2), pp. 244-258. ISSN 0007-1269 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Artists often report that seeing familiar stimuli in novel and interesting ways plays a role in visual art creation. However, the attentional mechanisms which underpin this ability have yet to be fully investigated. More specifically, it is unclear whether the ability to reinterpret visual stimuli in novel and interesting ways is facilitated by endogenously generated switches of attention, and whether it is linked in turn to executive functions such as inhibition and response switching. To address this issue, the current study explored ambiguous figure reversal and executive function in a sample of undergraduate students studying arts and non-arts subjects (N=141). Art students showed more frequent perceptual reversals in an ambiguous figure task, both when viewing the stimulus passively and when eliciting perceptual reversals voluntarily, but showed no difference from non-art students when asked to actively maintain specific percepts. In addition, art students were worse than non-art students at inhibiting distracting flankers in an executive inhibition task. The findings suggest that art students can elicit endogenous shifts of attention more easily than non-art students but that this faculty is not directly associated with enhanced executive function. It is proposed that the signature of artistic skill may be increased perceptual flexibility accompanied by reduced cognitive inhibition, however future research will be necessary to determine which particular subskills in the visual arts are linked to aspects of perception and executive function.

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Funded by:
- Methusalem programme of the Flemish Government. Grant Numbers: METH/08/02, METH/14/02
- The Research Foundation of Flanders (FWO)


ambiguous figures; executive function; visual art; visual attention

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31 May 2017Accepted
28 June 2017Published Online
10 April 2018Published

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Date Deposited:

02 Jun 2017 09:59

Last Modified:

24 Feb 2020 10:33

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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