In the present study, we examined the eye movement behaviour of children and adults looking at five Van Gogh paintings in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The goal of the study was to determine the role of top-down and bottom-up attentional processes in the first stages of participants’ aesthetic experience. Bottom-up processes were quantified by determining a salience map for each painting. Top-down processing was manipulated by first allowing participants to view the paintings freely, then providing background information about each painting, and then allowing them to view the paintings a second time. The salience analysis showed differences between the eye movement behaviour of children and adults, and differences between the two phases. In the children, the first five fixations during the free viewing phase were strongly related to visually salient features of the paintings—indicating a strong role for bottom-up factors. In the second phase, after children had received background information, top-down factors played a more prominent role. By contrast, adults’ observed patterns were similar in both phases, indicating that bottom-up processes did not play a major role when they viewed the paintings. In the second phase, children and adults both spent more time looking at regions that were mentioned in the background information. This effect was greater for adults than for children, confirming the notion that adults, when viewing paintings, rely much more on top-down processing than children.
Walker, F., Bucker, B., Anderson, N. C., Schreij, D., & Theeuwes, J. (2017). Looking at paintings in the Vincent Van Gogh Museum: eye movement patterns of children and adults. PLoS ONE, [e0178912]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178912