Emotions, art and virtual reality: an exploratory study


The rapid grown of Virtual Reality (VR) in emotion research is given by it’s ability to evoke a strong sense of presence that could be associated with high emotional responses. Virtual  reality  allows  us to  feel  immersed  in  a  temporally  and  spatially  place and the use of this technology in museum environments has increased significantly, changing the visitor experience. The aim of the present study is to compare the intensity of the emotion evoked by the painting showed in a virtual reality environment (VR) with the same painting shown through a computer screen (CS) asking to participants to judge the intensity of their emotions. The results of this exploratory study, which involved 18 participants, provide support to scientific knowledge on the impact that immersive technologies have – compared with the real world – in the emotional responses. 

Keywords: Aesthetic Sense., Virtual Reality., Computer Screen., Emotional Responses.


Emotions are multifaceted phenomena. Over the years, some research investigated the possibility of using Virtual Reality (VR) to evoke emotions in a wide range of fields, including art appreciation. 

Aesthetic experience is a fundamental element during art evaluation and it is characterized by the activation of bodily sensations and emotions, as well as by mechanisms of embodied simulation which would represent a basic level of aesthetic experience (Freedberg & Gallese, 2007., Gallese, 2010). The role of embodied simulation mechanisms, referred to the sensations and emotions produced by the artistic work, have been discussed as fundamental to interpreting not only art, but the aesthetic dimension of human experience. 

The origin of the sense of beauty, according to the evolutionary scenario (Darwin, 1871) would be traced to the courtship between the two sexes regulated by sexual selection (Desideri, 2013). There is no explanatory paradigm on the evolutionary origins of the aesthetic sense but some theoretical models try to explain it by focusing on physical characteristics which express a positive correlation with the reproductive goals of the species (Barlatesi, 2012). It would have developed in the animal domain with ornaments to attract potential female sexual partners, and, in this strictly co-evolutionary dynamic, females choose a more attractive male, making an aesthetic preference. 

Thus, from an aesthetic choice based on sexual preference, the sense of beauty has extended to environmental contexts that do not respond to any obvious adaptive function but are configured as a simple and disinterested enjoyment of beauty.

Today, in fact, aesthetic appreciation involves various fields, but what really drives us to appreciate a work of art and how the emotions we feel are able to influence our aesthetic experience? 

Empirical studies suggest that emotions play an important role in our daily lives and understanding them is a very important aspect of human behavior research (Picard, 1997). Therefore, arts promote psycho-physical well-being and the aesthetic experience is closely connected to emotional processing. Some research has focused on creating immersive scenarios that can simulate real-world contexts elicitng our emotional states and virtual reality has become increasingly popular in emotion research (Marín-Morales, 2020). 

The advantages of VR were found in the possibility of recreating interactive environments that offer to the subject a high sense of presence and participation (Diemer et al, 2015).  Going back in art history, immersiveness and activation of the senses during an art experience are not new. The devices by which the senses were solicited were certainly less efficient and more rudimentary, but this could be done in different ways guiding the reading of the artwork: with light games, through the trompe- l’oeil technique etc.

The first viewers, which allowed for an early approach to virtual reality, date back to the 1960s and were structurally much bulkier and with quite different resolutions; in 1968 Ivan Sutherland, designed the Sword of Damocles, nicknamed because it consisted of two cathode ray tubes that descended from the ceiling and projected the 3D image in front of the eyes superimposing it on the real space. 

Virtual reality used in the arts is becoming more and more common: to recreate archaeological environments of which excavations remain, to create immersive rooms in which it is possible to walk among the graphics of famous canvases, as well as to re-present reality, thus the emotions that can be aroused have become central since the production of the work. There is no substantial literature in this field but preliminary studies seem to agree that this technology is capable of making the aesthetic experience more immersive and (Morales et al. 2019). 

The 360-degree panoramas offer the closest results to reality and this  can be inferred based on the psychological and physiological responses of the participants; correlations have also been observed between the feeling of presence and this type of totalizing enjoyment, which allows the subject to move within the scenery and be able to wander around the space, almost in the same way as a visit in presence.   

In recent year the emotional response involved in the perception of art of work has been investigated through virtual reality but it’s not clear yet if there is a correlation between strong emotions and the sense of presence in virtual reality (Freeman et al. , 2005; Seth et al., 2012). The present study focused on investigating the differences between two visualization methods, i.e., VR and CS, in order to assess whether there is a preference in viewing a painting and whether subjects’ emotional responses change between the two modalities. This study could provides preliminary results in the field of aesthetic experience in VR environments, using this technology to psychologically engage users and add artistic elements to the scene (Wang et al. 2023).

Materials and methods

This study consists of two different experimental sessions wich are counterbalanced. In each session, two paintings (see below Figure 1 and 2) were shown to the participants through a virtual reality device that will be placed on his/her face like goggles and on a computer screen. 

Participants were asked to judge the intensity of emotions they felt on a scale of 1 to 10. 

For immersive virtual reality, we used a VR headset made by Oculus, the Oculus Rift, that allows the user to feel present in an ecological environment (Lucifora, et al., 2020; 2021) with a specific scenario representative of an Art Museum (Blue Dot Studios- Art Gallery) from the Unity Assets Store of Unity Engine 3D. This package includes the artworks that we used for our experimental design (see figure 1 and figure 2); while for non-immersive VR we used a desktop monitor 24 inch. 

A total of 18 Italian participants (10 females, 8 males; M = 25.36, SD = 4.09) completed the study and the requirements to participate in the experiment were to be aged between 18 and 35 and have no existing neuropsychological disorders. 

All participants read and provided a written consent form before entering the study. The procedure was approved by the ethical committee of the Department of Cognitive, Psychological, Pedagogical Sciences and Cultural Studies, of the University of Messina (approval n. *** -11-2022) and was conducted and in accordance with the Italian Association of Psychology code of ethics and the Declaration of Helsinki. 

The emotions that were considered refer to Ekman’s model (2003), referred to as also primary emotions:

1. Happiness

2. Surprise

3. Disgust

4. Anger

5. Fear

6. Sadness

The paintings showed during the study, with different characteristics and styles among them, how recognizable or unrecognizable forms, colors and features, determine different emotional responses.

Figure 1. Painting (1) shown to the participants in both modalities

Figure 2. Painting (2) shown to the participants in both modalities

Statistical analysis and results

Emotions between Virtual World and Computer screen

Statistical analyses were performed using SPSS-27 (Armonk, NY: IBM Corp). We used a within-subjects experimental design with a random order execution of the two sessions for each participant, with a critical value of p = .05.

First, we tested the data for normality with the Shapiro-Wilk test, revealing that our data were not normally distributed, thus, non-parametric analyses were then conducted.

In order to perform a comparison between the two modalities, Wilcoxon signed-rank Test was conducted regarding the intensity of emotional responses evocated by the two different paintings, only reporting significant results.

The Wilcoxon signed-rank tests showed statistically significant differences in the comparisons between virtual reality and computer screen (Figure 3 e 4) in participants’state of anger (Z= -3.55, p <.001) and in participants’state of sadness (Z= -3.43, p < .001).

We used two emotion elicitation modalities and observed that both are capable of inducing emotions from participants. We note that emotion elicitation using virtual reality environment was more stronger for Anger and Sadness, which are the emotions that effectively showed significant differences compared to computer screen. This result shows that the modality effect does not influence all emotions but only those that elicit a particular emotional response in the participants.

The results in other emotional responses (Happines., Surprise., Disgust., Fear) in fact, showed no significant differences between virtual reality world and computer screen. The understanding of other people’s emotion appear to be relevant in the comparison between VR and CS when embodied simulation mechanisms are activated for empathetic responses to paintings.

Figure 3. Comparisons between virtual reality and computer screen in participants’state of  anger.

Figure 4. Comparisons between virtual reality and computer screen in participants’state of sadness.


The perception of our body and the interaction with the environment is based on different sensory inputs which are integrated in the brain (Ehrsson et al., 2004). If the role of these inputs in the perception of the real world is well known, the role of multisensory input involved in the application of virtual reality has been investigated less, as well as the role of this technology in increasing emotional responses. Despite this, some research has shown that the number of senses stimulated in a VR simulator can enhance the sense of presence and emotional response could increase too (Wu et al., 2016).  

Moreover, art and emotions are intrinsically linked as also demonstrated by neuronal circuits that are activated when we contemplate a work of art, thus, in the last few years virtual reality is increasingly being used by museums providing a multisensory perception and amplifying emotional stimuli (Griziotti, 2012). This is line with recent researches that showed that VR enhances the emotional response of users through the vividness of the exhibited works (Wang et al. 2023). In a virtual reality experience, the subject can observe the most minute details of artwork and being able to ascertain the three-dimensionality of the painting as well as the subject matter. 

The findings of the present study seem to converge to the hypothesis the VR can elicit emotional responses offering a stronger degree of immersion. Most likely, the subjects who saw the works in the round and up close, without interference from the surrounding space, were more impressed and felt the emotions more strongly. 

The emphasis must therefore be placed on the emotional value that works of art, colors, and the iconological and iconographic meaning behind a canvas can generate; be almost part of the work, in contrast to a more canonical and with the figures delimited by a framemake that is represented to be perceived differently. This happens because the viewer becomes an active and interactive part of work and VR gives us the feeling that our whole body is present in the work. In accordance with previous research (Gorini et al., 2011, Riva et al., 2007) our results suggest the role of VR for emotional responses, with significant differences reported by the subjects in comparison to those evoked by computer screen. For both modalities, the results also indicated that paintings elicited the same emotions among the participants. 

Considering the focus of the present study, our results should be evaluated in a preliminary way, suggesting that VR environment can increase the sense of presence. Despite the characteristics of virtual environments, we adopted a static view of the painting, within a less interactive scenario. However, the relationship between presence and emotion was guaranteed even without the potential for exploration and immersion that a more interactive approach as virtual reality provide us. Images have a power, which can be demonstrated by the emotional reaction in front of them (Freedberg, 1989). Whether habitual images occupy a specific place in the real world, the feeling during the VR experience is to transcend that space because the viewer has a new affordance that depends on a new condition of unframrdness (Pinotti, 2021). For future research different experimental approach would help to understand in which way virtual reality increase emotions and if different emotional states may be associated with different levels of presence. 

Limitations and Future Research

The present exploratory study has some limits, not providing evidence through psychological and physiological comparisons during an emotional experience in real and virtual environments.  Many  researchers  have,  in  fact,  investigated the degree of presence an individual experience by measuring their physiological reactions to the virtual  environment, an important indicator that should be considered in emotion studies. 

Moreover, for future research the number of participants should be increased and also be extended to other countries to investigate this phenomenon, as well as to a wider age range. 

Declaration of interest statement

The authors report there are no competing interests to declare.


First, I would like to thank Professor Giorgio Grasso for allowing me to conduct this research in his laboratory (Nisc-Lab, University of Messina). I would also like to thank Professor Chiara Lucifora for having followed me throughout the experimental procedure. 

Anna Re
Istituto di Tecnologie didattiche, Centro Nazionale Ricerche, Palermo
Dipartimento di Scienze Cognitive, Psicologiche, Pedagogiche e degli Studi Culturali, Università degli Studi di Messina

Laura Ieni
Dipartimento di Scienze Cognitive, Psicologiche, Pedagogiche e degli Studi Culturali, Università degli Studi di Messina

Domenica Bruni
Dipartimento di Civiltà antiche e Moderne, Università degli Studi di Messina


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