Gearing up for those holiday dinner-table discussions about religion and politics? Well, here's a point you can unequivocally make: Jesus has a leftward bias.
In art, that is.
A newly published study that analyzed 484 paintings found Jesus is more likely to be portrayed with his head tilted so as to show more of his left cheek. The Buddha, on the other hand, is more frequently depicted looking straight ahead.
"Paintings of Jesus more frequently depicted a leftward bias than Buddha."
Consciously or not, artists who have depicted Jesus through the centuries have tended to do so in a way that attempts to elicit strong feelings. That is not the approach of those who created images of the Buddha.
The researchers scoured art databases for depictions of the two holy men, discarding those that showed either as a child or infant. The direction of Jesus' or the Buddha's gaze was noted for each.
"Paintings of Jesus more frequently depicted a leftward bias than Buddha, regardless of whether Jesus and Buddha were depicted alone or in a group," they report in the journal Laterality. "Paintings of Buddha depicted a central face presentation more often than paintings of Jesus."
What's this about? The researchers point to previous studies showing "the left side of the face has been found to express emotions more intensely compared to the right." This is apparently because the brain's right hemisphere is largely responsible for processing emotions, and its activity is reflected in the left side of the face.
"A person who wishes to convey a stronger emotion may unconsciously elect to do so in a way that allows more emotional information to be processed by the right hemisphere," they write. This entails displaying "more of the left side of the face, which is more able to express strong emotions."
We seem to understand this implicitly: A 2013 study found people taking selfies "overwhelmingly choose to show the left cheek," the researchers note.
So where does religion come in? "Christianity is associated with the charismatic tradition, which celebrates strong emotions as an essential part of religious experience," the researchers write. "Buddhism is associated with the contemplative tradition, which emphasizes a calming of passions and emotions."
Thus it makes perfect sense to portray Jesus in a pose meant to elicit intense feelings, and the Buddha in a manner intended to reflect, and instill, a sense of peace.
So if you're heading for church for the first time in a long time this Christmas, check out those paintings of Jesus adorning the walls. Notice where his gaze is directed. Whether or not you're devout, you may feel a surprising surge of emotion—one that reflects the subtle power of art.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.