„…then the musical work of art draws us into itself and carries us along with it “
Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics, 1835-38
In the context of listening to music, absorption denotes a psychological condition characterized by a deep involvement with art reception, and evaluated as a particularly intense and pleasurable type of aesthetic experience. We investigate these aesthetic experiences from the following two complementary perspectives:
Phenomenological aspects of absorption
Aesthetic absorption is conceptualized as a type of altered state of consciousness that is defined by the interplay between two distinct psychological processes (i.e., type I and type II processing). This approach allows us to understand how people can be absorbed by a piece of music as well as continue to be third-person observers, monitoring and reflecting on that same musical experience. We use several multivariate statistical techniques (such as structural equation modeling) to analyze self-report data on music experience, collected via state measures common to consciousness research. These techniques allow for detailed insight into the various mechanisms underlying state absorption, also in comparison to other subjective states (see Figure 1).
We identified two forms of music absorption which, after the literature on mind wandering, were labeled as zoning in and tuning in. These experiential profiles distinguish themselves in the degree to which a music listener maintained his or her meta-awareness (Vroegh, 2018a). The distinction between zoning in and tuning in was found to be strongly related to the quality of affective states (Vroegh, 2018b). It was further shown that being absorbed by music is a matter of ‘more-or-less’ involvement instead of being marked by a clear observable onset.
This finding cautions against subtyping absorption experiences as being categorical distinct, and suggests that ‘being musically absorbed’ is rather a matter of imprecise estimation (Vroegh, 2018c). Current research aims to identify which thought contents are an inherent part of absorption, providing further direction in conceptually distinguishing absorption from mind-wandering.
Behavioral and physiological correlates of musical absorption
Our account relates aesthetic absorption explicitly to the construct of attention. Attention can be defined as a limited resource for information processing, e.g., directed to object features or to spatial locations. In working memory theory—which is a research field in cognitive psychology— attention serves to select information and also maintain representations for a short period of time. With respect to music listening, one assumption is that attention is needed as a resource to process music. Music absorption can be defined as attention being directed to music as an aesthetic object. Then, in the framework of cognitive load theories, musical absorption requires resources, with stronger absorption states requiring more resources.
We apply a variety of methods and experimental designs to investigate cognitive load effects in different gradations of absorption. These include dual task interference, and eye tracking to measure eye movements, pupil dilation, and blinking activity. For instance, it is known that cognitive load results in a reduction of microsaccades (micromovements of the eye) during fixation. In line with our argumentation of absorption being related to load, we found that microsaccade rate indicates absorption states during intense music listening (Lange, Zweck, & Sinn, 2017). Likewise, blinking activity is reduced for increased music absorption. We replicated the latter finding for audiobook absorption, but not the effect of microsaccade rate (Kuijpers & Lange, 2017). Using a dual-task design, we also showed a relation between being absorbed in music and reaction times in a simple choice reaction task (Wiesman, Vroegh, Henschke, & Lange, manuscript submitted). Our present research investigates rhythmic-dynamic changes in pupil dilation during music listening (Fink, Lange, & Janata, 2018).
Vroegh, T., Wiesmann, S. L., Henschke, S., & Lange, E. B. (2021). Manual motor reaction while being absorbed into popular music. Consciousness and Cognition, 89, 103088. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2021.103088
Lange, E. B., Thiele, D., & Kuijpers, M. M. (2020). Narrative aesthetic absorption in audiobooks is predicted by blink rate and acoustic features. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/aca0000321
Vroegh, T. P. (2019). Zoning-in or tuning-in? Identifying distinct absorption states in response to music. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 29(2-3), 156-170. doi:10.1037/pmu0000241.
Vroegh, T. P. (2018). The pleasures of getting into the music: Absorption, and its role in the aesthetic appreciation of music. PhD Thesis, Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt.
Fink, L., Lange, E.B., & Janata, P. (2018). The pupil entrains to prominent periodicities in music. 15th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC), Graz, Austria.
Kuijpers, M.& Lange, E.B. (2017).Experiencing audiobooks: The effects of microsaccade and blink rate 19th European Conference on Eye Movements (ECEM), Wuppertal, Germany.
Lange, E.B., Zweck, F., & Sinn, P. (2017).Microsaccade-rate indicates absorption by music listening. Consciousness and Cognition, 55, 59-78. DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2017.07.009
Vroegh, T. (2021). Visual imagery in the listener’s mind: A network analysis of absorbed consciousness. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/cns0000274
Vroegh, T.P. (2022). Music-evoked imagery in an absorbed state of mind: a Bayesian network approach. In Küssner, M.B., Taruffi, L., & Floridou, G.A. (Eds.). Music and Mental Imagery (pp. 189-199). Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780429330070
Vroegh, T. (2022, August 17). Music as hypnosis? A comparative network analysis of entrancing states of mind. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/8xahj