Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Unexpected Visitor

Alfred Lukyanovich Yarbus (1914 -1986) was a Russian psychologist who made a number of seminal studies of eye movements. Many of his most interesting results were published in a book, translated into English and published in 1967 as Eye Movements and Vision. [1]  This book is now out of print but you can find PDF copies to download.

I first saw some of Yarbus' data about 13 years ago as scratchy black and white scans from the book.

One of the most compelling of Yarbus' experiments was an eye-tracking study he performed where he asked subjects to look at a reproduction of a Russion oil painting An Unexpected Visitor painted by Ilya Repin in 1884.

Yarbus asked the subjects to look at the same picture in a number of different ways, including; [1] examine the painting freely. [2] estimate the material circumstances of the family. [3] assess the ages of the characters [4] determine the activities of the family prior to the visitor’s arrival. [5] remember the characters’ clothes. And [6] surmise how long the visitor had been away from the family. What is brilliant is that the eye-tracking traces recorded by Yarbus showed that the subjects visually interrogate the picture in a completely different way depending on what they want to get from it.

Cabinet Magazine (Issue 30 The Underground Summer 2008) has a piece by Sasha Archibald called Ways of Seeing that takes the original eye-tracking traces from Yarbus' book and superposes them on a colour reproduction of the painting. This is the first time I have seen this done. The originals in the book by Yarbus are disembodied eye-tracking traces laid out near to, but not overlaying, the reproduction of the Repin painting. 

These new overlays by Archibald are worth comparing. Here is (left) the original image (middle) free examination and (right) what the subject did when asked to estimate the material circumstances of the family.  


[1] A. L. Yarbus, Eye Movements and Vision. New York: Plenum Press, 1967. (Translated from Russian by Basil Haigh. Original Russian edition published in Moscow in 1965.)

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