Cartoony vs. Realistic Images in the Brain

Choi, Yeojeong, Kim, Takhwan, & Jaeseung Jeong. 2008. “EEG Source Localization during Empathy of Iconic and Realistic Cartoon Characters.” Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM), Melbourne, Australia ,15-19 June, 2008

In McCloud’s Understanding Comics he proposed his theory of “cartoon identification” that cartoony* images are “identified” with better than realistic images. This study (pdf) tested McCloud’s theory by using behavioral measures of a 7-point rating and EEG measures of the brain’s electrical activity.

I’ve found that this theory of McCloud’s was a bit ambiguous, since people have interpreted it in two different ways. It can either mean that people “identify” with cartoony images meaning…

1) They are perceived cognitively at a more “base” level.
2) That they empathize with the characters more.

Critics have usually tapped into the second reading, since it is close to a claim about how people “identify” with characters in a literary sense. However, I’ve always been more partial to the first interpretation (which I attempted to codify further in my book), though the two views aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed, cartoony images could evoke more empathy because they are more conceptually basic. This study aimed to examine the second version, strictly with a view of the degree of “empathy” styles create.

The experimenters contrasted comic strips that featured two opposing characters who were depicted in either realistic or cartoony styles (as in the example above) and put into different scenarios to evoke reader sympathy via who wins the confrontation (strips had varying endings, ex. winner is congratulated by a woman vs. loser is consoled by a woman). Participants only viewed one depiction, and only one option for the ending.

They then compared ratings in a behavioral study on a 7-point scale measuring empathy to both “winners” and “losers”, and in a separate population, measured EEG brainwaves for the same stimuli.

Brain areas were activated that related to social perception, recognizing facial expressions, and seeing another person’s pain**. They found both higher behavioral ratings of empathy and greater activation in the brain for areas for the cartoony characters than the realistic characters for both “winners” and “losers” (though different brain areas for different roles). They take these results to be support for McCloud’s theory of identification that indeed, cartoony images do invoke greater empathy from a reader than realistic images.


*The authors, and McCloud, often use “iconic” to mean “cartoony” — I’m going to avoid this because it doesn’t accurately convey what “iconic” means in a semiotic sense (i.e. meaning through resemblance). Technically, both cartoony and realistic images are “iconic.”

** Just a caveat for those who actually follow the link to the pdf poster. The study shows nice pretty pictures of brains with activated regions to support its hypothesis, but these can be misleading given the actual methods used. Unlike a technique like fMRI, EEG does not give much information about where in the brain something occurs, and is much better at when it appears (i.e. the timing of processing). These brain images and results were gained using a “source localization” procedure which extrapolated from the data what brain regions were being used, a technique that is commonly employed, but often controversial. This isn’t to say that the results are inaccurate, but they should be understood with this context.


  • Interesting studies. I always understood his theory to mean that by the artist withholding specific details, the viewer is more able to fill in the missing details with information about ourselves.

  • Maybe the cartoony images were just interpreted as weaker or more childish, invoking sympathy because they seemed like the “underdog”?

  • I never got the impression that a good cartoon needs any “filling” by the viewer’s imagination. If anything, a cartoon is more expressive than a realistic depiction, emphasing very deliberate aspect of a character and thus leaving less to the imagination.
    I’m more with the “childish” theory.

  • While we might empathize more with the simpler image for whatever reason, a realistic (or more complex) image can communicate more about a given character for the viewer to sympathize with. It seems to me when I see every wrinkle in a man's face bend to communicate an emotion to me I perceive or feel (can't tell the difference sometimes) that emotion in a very human sense. By this I mean in simple drawings we isolate certain commonly used symbols for emotion making the cartoon more of a language than a representation and we clearly identify emotion. Frown = sadness etc. But in realistic or even non realistic complex drawings we see a more complicated image and therefore a more complicated emotion. Now it might not register as widely or as quickly but can be captured more dramatically or reflect more of the complexity that is actually behind human emotion, and both have there own narrative effects and uses.

  • Andrew – I think that the "filling ourselves in" is one aspect of McCloud's approach at least. I'm not sure how feasible that idea is (nor how to test it). It may also depend on how you mean about "ourselves" also — is that "knowledge about our personality/being/etc" or "knowledge about our faces." I can think of where different views of cognition would fall down on that idea.

    Martin – I'm not sure how well the "underdog" theory holds because the experimenters modified whether the cartoony depiction was for the "winner" or the "loser" in the images based on the resulting last panel.

  • The underdogs win in every Hollywood movie. They are still considered sympathetic in the end, in part because they started out in a seemingly weaker position.

  • I'm not sure about the results of that particular study, but, personally, if the examples given were anything like those you illustrated, I can understand why people would empathize with the more cartoony image.

    No matter what role the realistic character plays in your example, he still comes across as being almost grotesque when compared to the cartooned character.

  • If you follow the link to the actual poster, you'll see that the examples I show are NOT my own — they are the ones from the actual study.

    I would imagine (hope?) that the study would use many more stimuli besides this one though. My experiments generally use hundreds of stimuli, because just one would not be enough to draw out the proper response.

    So, I would hope that this is just one of several that they used.

  • But I think the experimenters left out something.

    The female character in all scenarios were iconic.

    They should have put in a choice where the female character was realistic.

    It might be we prefer the image where both characters were symmetrical rather than because they were iconic.

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