John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

The Psychological Impact of Image Streams

image stream

In this media rich age of ours, a steady stream of images flows past our eyes everyday. How do we react to this flood of visual stimulation? How much of it registers in our conscious and unconscious mind? What captures our attention, and what doesn’t?

These are the kinds of questions that intrigue me as a psychologist who studies the impact of images in contemporary media, particularly in online photo-sharing communities where photographers can click past hundreds of pictures in a matter of minutes. And so I set out to conduct some research that might shed light on these questions.

In several of my undergraduate psychology classes, I presented a slide show of 200 numbered photographs at the rather rapid pace of five seconds each. The images included a wide variety of types, such as landscapes, animals, architecture, street scenes, still life, abstracts, people, and portraits. Before the slide show began, I asked the students to jot down the numbers of any images that stood out for them, to which they found themselves having a significant positive or negative reaction, for whatever reason. Once the slide show ended, I asked them to close their eyes, then allow one of the images from the slide show to surface into their awareness. After giving them a few moments to focus on this image, I directed their attention to an instruction sheet that encouraged them to write down what they remembered of the photo and to describe their reactions to several questions that Judy Weiser often used in her approach to psychotherapy that she called “phototherapy,” such as: What thoughts, feelings, or memories come to mind about this image? If you could go into this photo, what would you say or do? What would you change about this image? What message might this photo be giving you?

Here are some of my conclusions from that study.

Our conscious mind goes numb, but not our unconscious mind

It was clear that the number of photos that stood out for the students faded over the course of the slide show. This suggests that when we are flooded with images in the media, we do become a bit numb to it all. It made me think of movies that are chock full of special effects: we start off thinking “wow” and by the end of the movie we’re yawning. However, when the slide show ended and I asked the students to allow any one of the photos to surface into awareness, the images they remembered seemed to be randomly distributed throughout the whole slide show. That, I thought, was very interesting. Inviting something to surface into one's mind encourages the unconscious to take over. So even though the student’s conscious mind tended to become a bit numb to the parade of pictures, their unconscious mind remembered images that could have appeared anywhere in the slide show. The unconscious mind does not become numb. It’s ready to notice something interesting in a stream of visual stimulation.

There are high and low responders

Some students listed many photos as standing out for them during the slide show, while others listed very few. Clearly, some people react more strongly, or at least more frequently, to an ongoing stream of images than other people. We might therefore conclude that there are “high responders” and “low responders” to continual visual stimulation. For the images that surfaced into awareness after the slide presentation, the low responders tended to react to these recalled photos with feelings of worry, anxiety, and fear, a need to withdraw into sleep, and a desire for relaxation. These results made me wonder whether the numbness some people develop to the ongoing stream of visual stimulation in the media can be penetrated by images that trigger anxiety or the need for relief from it – images that might linger in their mind and surface later on. On the other hand, almost all of the high responders who listed many standout images during the slide show later recalled a photo that triggered ideas about happy and loving relationships with friends and family, which rarely happened among the low responders. Perhaps a history of fulfilling relationships encourages us to respond more readily to a variety of life experiences as depicted in the proliferate images of our media.

Individual differences trump visual design and concept

According to the traditional standards of visual design and concept, the photographs ranged from acceptable to excellent composition, with some portraying straightforwardly benign ideas (e.g., a path curving through woods), while others depicting puzzling and even bizarre scenes (e.g., a clown in a graveyard, holding a duck and taking a photograph of the viewer). Curiously, these differences in the “pop” of visual design and concept didn’t seem to make a difference in what images the subjects recalled after the slide show. Some of the recalled images had pop and some were quite mundane. For example, despite the fact that the graveyard clown was one of the top 20 images that stood out for the students during the slide show, only one person recalled this photo afterwards. In fact, there was very little overlap in what specific images the students remembered after the slide presentation, and only half of the top 20 images that stood out during the slide show were later recalled after the slide show ended. What might this finding suggest? Perhaps the pop of visual design and concept has an immediate conscious impact on what stands out for people as they view an ongoing stream of images, but what they later recall, what lingers in their minds, and most probably in their unconscious, is determined more by their individual personalities and backgrounds.

We long for oneness and tranquility

The most common reaction the students discussed concerning the images they recalled after the slide show was a kind of symbiotic desire for a state of “peacefulness, joy, contentment, love, relaxation, comfort, security, oneness, rejuvenation, synchronization, immersion, and pure tranquility” (to use their words). This desire for a peaceful and happy feeling of belonging occurred in reaction to images of nature, as well as to a variety of other types of images, including those pictures that stirred ideas about joining with friends and family members, sleeping peacefully, immersing into books, and becoming one with sport activities and the team. Some of the students longed for a release from the stresses and demands of our contemporary, multitasking, forever-busy lifestyle, and a return to a state of simplicity, clearness of mind, and presence in the here and now. In some cases it seemed to be an intrinsic spiritual need, regardless of the stress level in one’s life. Paradoxically, contemporary media continually bombard us with a never-ending stream of fantastic, supercharged, and exciting images, when what really attracts people is simply a return to a state of oneness and tranquility.

Negative emotions are stimulated by dream-like images

After the slide show ended, only ten students recalled a photo that stirred exclusively negative emotions. There were three basic themes: being attacked by a threatening figure, loss of a loved one, and being restrained or trapped, either by some external force or by one’s own limitations. I found it interesting that all of these images were not realistic looking photographs, but rather surrealistic, dark, or blurry scenes, much like one would experience in dream-like states of consciousness, as in nightmares. What might this suggest? Perhaps many of us usually defend against remembering images in the media that arouse negative feelings, but if an image does break through those protective barriers, it will more likely succeed when it simulates unconscious, dream-like modes of perception, or it will succeed for those people who are more susceptible to these dream-like styles of thinking.

It’s meant to be like this

Of all the questions posed to the students about the photos they remembered after the slide show, I found most intriguing their reactions to this one: “What would you change about this image?” Many people did not respond to this question, and if they did, they almost always said that they would change nothing. Of course, that made sense when they associated positive feelings and memories with the photo. However, even in cases when the image triggered negative emotions, the students still tended to say that they would not change anything about the photo. A few people remarked that if they could enter the picture, they would provide some kind of assistance or support to the person in the photo who appeared distressed, and yet they would still not change the image itself. “It’s meant to be like this,” one student said. As a psychologist who studies photography, I found this quite profound, because it supports what many photographers say about their work, including and perhaps especially their images that capture a moment depicting suffering in the human condition. This is the way it was, and for that moment, this is the way it’s supposed to be.


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