Your memory of art may not be as subjective as we previously thought, according to a new study from UChicago’s Brain Bridge Lab and published in PNAS—the first real-world experiment of this type.
The team, led by then-fourth year College student Trent Davis, studied visual properties of paintings and gallery influences to build a model capable of predicting people’s memory for artwork in the real-world.
According to Wilma Bainbridge, study co-author and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, the team wanted to determine how well they could predict what people remember when they visit an art museum. The assumption would be that people might have very individual perspectives on how they connect to and appreciate art, so there wouldn’t be much consistency in people's memory of different pieces.
The researchers used a neural network for the study called ResMem, a publicly available deep learning model built by the Brain Bridge Lab for estimating the memorability of an image. Bainbridge says they tested their key study questions by having ResMem predict how memorable each painting was, and seeing if its predictions correlated with human performance.
A museum visit to remember
The team chose paintings featured at the Art Institute of Chicago (the film location, as Bainbridge notes for pop culture reference, “where the really poignant art museum scene was filmed in Ferris Bueller's Day Off”).
First, they ran an online experiment showing more than 3,000 people a unique subset of the 4,021 paintings from the Art Institute as a stream of pictures, prompting them to press a button whenever they recognized a painting from earlier in the stream. “From that memory performance, we see that people do tend to remember and forget the same pieces—but it’s in an artificial computer task,” Bainbridge said.
Because one of the few times we view images in the real world with the intention of trying to remember the experience is when visiting an art museum, the researchers then sent 20 participants to the Art Institute in a freeform visit. They were told to look at every piece in the American Art wing, but otherwise they could explore the exhibit as they would naturally. They could see the artwork in any order, spend as much time as they wanted, and could bring along a companion. Bainbridge also noted that the experiment took place during the pandemic when capacity was capped at 25%, giving participants more space and time to spend with the art.