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How do we (bodily) relate and respond to others in a culture powered by images ?

The 'Body & Image in Arts & Sciences' (BIAS) project was an innovative interdisciplinary research program that merged perspectives from cognitive neurosciences and psychology with those from the humanities and arts to study the performative power of images. It attempted to do so at the Warburg Institute, the premier institute in the world for the study of cultural history and the role of images in culture, inspired by Aby Warburg’s unparalleled interdisciplinary vision on the history of images.  In line with the Institute's  commitment to building bridges across the boundaries between the humanities, arts and sciences, BIAS tried to  to forge new and innovative synergies across the disciplines.
The BIAS project was supported by the NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Award that enabled us to form a new research team and neuroscience lab hosted at Warburg.The  overarching question of BIAS was to ask “How do we (bodily) relate & respond to others in a culture powered by images ?” and we wanted to approach this question through the lens of interdisciplinary research, in line with Aby Warburg’s vision about interdisciplinarity .  

And we aimed at applying this question and approach to different domains. Considering embodiment in our relations to art and aesthetic experience. But also to how we present and represent images of the self. How our relations to images shape our social understanding of the world and their sociopolitical power


Equipped with insights from humanities and arts, methods from psychology and neuroscience, we set up our team and lab at the Warburg Institute in November 2016 and we were excited that we were given the opportunity to re-instate such cross-disciplinary dialogues at the institute. As we were welcoming our first participants in our studies, we couldn’t help but notice that a radical societal paradigm shift was taking place, one that would mark our times and also affect greatly how we think about the power of images.


Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, world audiences heard Kellyanne Conway using the term “alternative facts” to describe false statements made by the press secretary Sean Spicer. The debate was about the attendance numbers of Trump’s inauguration. And while the images spoke for themselves, we heard that there were alternative facts. Soon after , Time magazine asked whether Truth was dead. Time magazine was right in asking this question.


Now, more than ever before, we are asked to judge the realness, truthfulness and trustworthiness of our social world. From mainstream news to social media posts, from edited photos to deep fake videos, from humans to bots, and from alternative facts to fake news, we must judge the authenticity of agents and the information they convey. Our relations to images go to the heart of the matter. And for that reason the questions of realness, truthfulness and trustworthiness came at the forefront of our BIAS research as I will show you in some selected examples from our different domains of investigation.


In the domain of art and aesthetics, we focused, among other topics, on how we perceive expressivity and authenticity in one of the oldest arts, dance. To that end, and working together with dancers we developed the Warburg Dance Movement Library of expressive and non-expressive dance movements, that we validated, made freely available to the research community and we then showed how how physiological responses can differentiate between expressive and non-expressive yet technically correct ballet and modern dance movements. In addition, we contributed to ongoing discussions about the role of embodied signals in shaping our aesthetic experiences.


And our research attracted the interest of artists and art schools. I was a visiting lecturer at the Central Saint Martins in London, and at the Haute Ecole d’Art et de Design in Geneva, showcased our research at Tate Modern, worked together with  the Siobhan Davies Dance, a leading dance company in London, contributed to the catalogue of the exhibition of Lauren Huret at the Cultural Centre of Switzerland in Paris.


Let’s turn now at the second domain of self-representation. The question of how we mentally represent our self has been at the centre of cultural practices across centuries (look at self-portraits) and nowdays , & at the centre of our understanding of mental health issues such as body-image disorders. At BIAS we wondered whether there is a way to visually depict, for all to see, how we mentally represent our selves? And if so, what can we tell about the mental portraits of ourselves that we hold in our minds? To understand what I mean by mental portrait  close your eyes and bring your face to your mind. How do you see yourself ? younger or older than you are ? Do you look trustworthy , dominant ? How did we do that ?

We used a technique where you are given two versions of a random face and choose the one that looks most like you and you repeat that for four hundred trials. When we average your choices, in other words, all the faces that you thought looked more like you, we end up with a mental self-portrait. This method allowed us to visualize participants’ mental representations in a data-driven, unbiased and unconstrained way. Did we succeed ? Yes. In general people produce accurate mental self-portraits, but we also saw deviations from accuracy that were related to people’s beliefs about their personality. For example, people who thought of themselves as trustworthy, they had a mental self-portrait that looked more trustworthy.  In addition,  people with higher social self-esteem produced more accurate self-portraits. The self-portraits contained physical fingerprints of our personality traits, that were also reliably detected by external observers. The importance of this research lies in the discovery that our mental self-portraits represent a distinctive meeting point of the physical and psychological selves, and our findings can provide a substantial advance in understanding the construction of our body-image.


Turning to more social aspects of the power of images, we conducted 8 studies with 4 thousand EU citizens to study the political consequences of the visual dehumanization of refugees. While we know that images of identifiable victims such as this one elicit empathy and prosocial attitudes, the majority of the images we see in the media portray large masses of outgroups. And while most social psychologists think that such images may just render us indifferent we tested hypotheses coming from the humanities about the dehumanizing nature of such images and their political consequences. We found that exposing people to images of large groups of refugees, as opposed to small groups, results in greater dehumanisation, and more so when the refugees were depicted in a water/sea element, recalling the linguistic portrayal of refugees using metaphors of water, waves, tides and ‘floods of water’ . Importantly, such images make people more likely to support anti-refugees measures and to vote for more authoritarian leaders. And in terms of mechanism we show that it is the emotions viewers experience themselves when seeing these images that drive such changes in their social behaviour. This set of studies was published in Nature Humanities and Social Sciences Communications.


In the domain of visual politics we looked at how people form judgments about the realness of photojournalistic images of human suffering, a pressing question in the era of fake news and deep fake technology. In a series of 8 experiments we showed that both subjective  and physiological arousal elicited when viewers first look at such images predicts whether they will judge the images to be real or staged. And we also demonstrated how at the cortical level, the magnitude of the cardiac responses can also predict people’s beliefs about these images. Then, we computed “patterns” of emotions associated to each image and using an unsupervised method we clustered the images into two broad groups of “Violence” and “Suffering” . We were able to show that specific emotions  such as compassion and hope but not anger increased the probability of judging an image as real.


Lastly, we turned our attention to another type of visual stimuli that are becoming ubiquitous in digital culture. Generative adversarial networks (GANs) faces are computer generated realistic-looking faces of people who do not exist. They never existed and they will never do. GAN faces are increasingly used in marketing, journalism, social media, and political propaganda. We asked whether people can tell the difference between real and GAN faces and what are the social consequences. We found that  GAN faces are more likely to be perceived as real than actually Real faces and people are more likely to trust them. Moreover, informing people about the existence of GAN faces lowered social trust overall, a finding that reflects the erosion of trust that results from the operation of artificial agents. You can read more about these in our paper published in iScience.


Throughout the period of the project,  BIAS we also actively forged such inter-disciplinary collaborations. For example, I co-edited the first volume that considered interoception through the perspectives of neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, and philosophy. BIAS organized several events such as the “Dissecting the Visceral Body’ with the participation of psychology and neuroscience, art history & history, medical anthropology, and philosophy and we disseminated our research to wider audiences.


The BIAS project has been a catalyst for thinking more broadly about the role of the body, its physiological states and emotions for a range of social and political issues. Our research gave me the opportunity to think more deeply about the interface pf emotions and politics, These thoughts were further expanded through my participation as steering committee member for the Enlightenment 2.0 flagship project of the Joint Research Centre  of the European Commission. BIAS and its connections with other disciplines and partners has paved the way for the Centre for the Politics of Feelings that was inaugurated in 2021 with the generous support of the NOMIS Foundation.

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