Towards Empirical Enactivism: An Eye-tracking Study of Looking at Art While Feeling Aloud


  • Udo Schimanofsky University of Vienna


Various researchers have presented evidence that verbalizing thoughts while looking at something affects viewing behaviour [1]. This implies that eye-tracking and concurrent think-aloud (CTA) do not supply independent data points, because viewing and verbalization create a feedback-loop that affects both activities. While this exemplifies the tenets of enacted cognition, it is precisely to avoid this reactivity that cognitive psychologists and aesthetic researchers have often opted against using CTA so as not to distort their data [2]. Both despite and because of this, hardly any research has been conducted on the exact nature of these interactions.

To fill this gap, an explorative experiment is proposed in which abstract art is presented to several subjects under different viewing conditions: a) silent viewing, b) viewing with unrelated verbalization task, c) viewing with CTA. The traditional CTA is adapted to a “feel-aloud” protocol with a focus on affective appraisal (in order to boost the contrast of stimulus-driven and introspection-driven verbalizations, and eye-movements). Abstract art was chosen as a stimulus set for ease of isolating basic visual features (i.e. colours, shape), maximizing explorative gaze, and reducing the effect of culturally engrained gaze patterns. Expected results for the CTA condition include more but shorter fixations on fewer regions of interest and more transitions between fixation clusters, indicating visual revisitations of details that are most salient in verbal references [1]. Explorative analysis of latencies and links between fixations and verbal references in individual cases is also planned, drawing on aesthetic processing models, research on the role of language in perception, and affective appraisal in viewing art [3].

Far from being a mere methodological hurdle to be sidestepped in controlled experimental setups, reactivity between an attention metric (like eye-tracking data) and a meta-cognitive measure (like CTA) could give valuable insights into the dynamic interplay of lower-level stimulus-driven attention and higher-level cognition; and may well be a crucial step in the development of a method for the empirical investigation of enactivism.


[1] C. Klein et al., “Describing art – an interdisciplinary approach to the effects of speaking on gaze movements during the beholding of paintings,” PLoS ONE, vol. 9, no. 12, 2014. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102439

[2] K. A. Ericsson, “Valid and Non-Reactive Verbalization of Thoughts During Performance of Tasks. Towards a Solution to the Central Problems of Introspection as a Source of Scientific Data,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 10, no. 9–10, pp. 1–18, 2003.

[3] P. J. Silvia, “Emotional responses to art: From collation and arousal to cognition and emotion,” Review of General Psychology, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 342–357, 2005. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.9.4.342

Author Biography

Udo Schimanofsky, University of Vienna

I studied English at the University of Vienna (Mag., specializing in linguistics) and now I'm a Mei:CogSci student (Vienna, mobility semester 2021/22 in Bratislava). I'm interested in meaning construction, context-dependency, semiotics and hope to gain some empirical experience with tools like EEG, eye-tracking, fMRI etc. At the time of writing, I'm wrestling with semantic space modelling.

If this still doesn't satisfy your curiosity, here's a bit of random background: Born and raised in Austria. First found social confidence in circus school (unicycling, clowning, juggling) and my first job was being the dopy but lovable door guard at the jester king's castle (an interactive children's theatre), going on adventures with the kids to defeat the evil wizard and fight the forces of boredom... I've worked as an editor, student assistant, actor, bike messenger, illustrator, bike service technician, at an organic grocery shop, at Santa's workshop at the Christmas market, in a hostel and very briefly in a haunted house (where I learned to start a chain saw)... I like drawing and usually do some kind of daily drawing challenge as an advent calendar in December. I also lived in Prague for half a year, like graphic novels and weird books and music that doesn't just go "dmmts dmmts dmmts dmmts..." Stories are everything... and everything is made of stories!