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Uncomfortable images and spatial periodicity in nature, in art, and in text

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We find that 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 per degree. In six studies, the amplitude at this spatial frequency, relative to that 3 octaves below, 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.

In a further eight studies of word reading we find that the first peak in the horizontal autocorrelation of the image of a word predicts the speed with which the word can be read, both aloud and silently. Subtlety distorting the horizontal dimension of words so as to reduce the spatial periodicity increases reading speed in poor readers.

Striped patterns are known to be uncomfortable and capable of provoking headaches and seizures in susceptible persons. The present findings show for the first time that spatial periodicity may be associated with aversion and with visual inefficiency in images more complex than simple geometric patterns – images such as art and text.

We propose a simple measurement that can predict a negative public reaction to art. We propose simple changes to the design of text that can reduce the spatial periodicity

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