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Perception. 2008;37(7):1098-113.

Uncomfortable images in art and nature.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester CO4 3SQ, UK.


The ratings of discomfort from a wide variety of images can be predicted from the energy at different spatial scales in the image, as measured by the Fourier amplitude spectrum of the luminance. Whereas comfortable images show the regression of Fourier amplitude against spatial frequency common in natural scenes, uncomfortable images show a regression with disproportionately greater amplitude at spatial frequencies within two octaves of 3 cycles deg(-1). In six studies, the amplitude in this spatial frequency range relative to that elsewhere in the spectrum explains variance in judgments of discomfort from art, from images constructed from filtered noise, and from art in which the phase or amplitude spectra have been altered. Striped patterns with spatial frequency within the above range are known to be uncomfortable and capable of provoking headaches and seizures in susceptible persons. The present findings show for the first time that, even in more complex images, the energy in this spatial-frequency range is associated with aversion. We propose a simple measurement that can predict aversion to those works of art that have reached the national media because of negative public reaction.

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