Studying the associative properties of rhythm on the perception of emotion

Neff, Aaron
Major Professor
Sunghyun Kang
Committee Member
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Art and Design

Patterns surround us in our daily lives, nature itself is made up of a variety of complex repetitive patterns from the leaves in the trees to the cycle of the Earth around the sun. These sequences are not just found in nature but also our daily lives, walking, sleeping, and in our heartbeats. The human heart has a way of telling us if we are excited by beating quickly or if we are scared, by skipping a beat. Can these patterns translate into all aspects of our lives, particularly motion graphics? Can using different forms of rhythmic patterns, changing frequency, position, and shape, be formed into one of the five basic emotional responses?

Musicians have already proven their mastery of emotional responses with rhythm and tempo. Using particular beats musicians can encourage dancing, sadness, romance or any other response. Psychologists have studied people's responses to music, using studies involving tone, successive notes and harmony. The responses to these studies have led psychologists to similarly study the juxtaposition of images and films.

The method of analyzing patterns as they relate to basic emotional responses has already been proven in a study by Ekman and Friesen (1971), where people around the world were shown facial expressions and they were asked to determine the emotion. This test showed a general ability for all humans to recognize shapes and patterns within facial expressions on a world scale. Another study involving films and their context of perceived emotion has been recorded by Philippot (1993), in which French films were shown to an American audience and they were asked to pick the overall emotion of the piece based on a small clip. This study determined that people could generally identify the proper emotion of the scene without knowing what was being spoken.

These psychological studies have proven that there are visual clues which allow an emotion to be recognized, and these emotions can be determined from a combination of static images or through video. Underlying these studies is the idea we recognize patterns from our genetics and culture which allow us respond in a particular way to individual situations, and if these combinations of patterns and rhythms work with the human face and gesture, then maybe the idea extends beyond our ability to see humanity.

This same concept of using rhythm in music to trigger emotional responses should transfer over into motion graphics. By using simple shapes to eliminate the associations brought with images, and by only changing the elements which form a pattern, this could reveal patterns that are seen as relating to a particular emotion. These patterns, both natural and man made, could be changing our emotional responses and visual experiences everyday.

In this study here, ten videos were created, two videos for each of the five basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy, and sadness. Each video contained a short motion graphic of a circle creating various patterns of motion, between three and ten seconds in length and displayed within a standard resolution (720x480 pixels) DV NTSC format. The videos were displayed as part of an online survey, where each video was followed by a multiple choice question with seven answers, one for no emotion, one for each of the five basic emotions, and one write in where participants wrote in their own emotional response.

After the data was collected from one hundred and forty-five participants who took either one of two surveys the results showed that seven out of the ten videos had more than half the respondents describe an emotion present in that video. Of those videos four of them had a significant well above chance of selecting the same emotion.

These results show that further study into the use of non image related patterns to trigger cognitive emotional responses should be taken, and that using patterns as a means of transferring a message is now more of a possibility than previously thought. A new method of creating design, motion graphics and videos can now be attempted.