Art and the Altered State: Science Correlates with the Sublime

I stood in front of a work of art that was both
unexpected and exceedingly beautiful.
It sent me into a trance.  Time ceased. 
My body was fixed.  But, my brain was active. 
It spoke to me and said,

 “I feel happy.”
Anonymous Art Lover


Tom Kuebler, a physician friend of mine, had a particular feeling when he saw art with which he instantly fell in love.  He described it as ecstasy.  Kuebler is not alone.  Though others may call it an altered state or even a trance, the sensation seems to be the same, intense positive emotion.   In fact, the reaction has a name, Stendhal syndrome.  According to Wikipedia, it is a “psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.”

The term, “Psychosomatic,” suggests that the basis of the response is entirely emotional.  But, recent research indicates this may not be the case.  Semir Zeki from University College, London recently demonstrated that the perception of beauty itself can cause simultaneous blood flow changes in a crucial brain area consistent with pleasure and happiness.

This is Dr. Zeki’s story.  He studied the brain’s response to a range of paintings, some beautiful and others less so, by using functional resonance imaging (fMRI).  This technique measures changes in blood flow associated with increased metabolism that directly correlate with enhanced underlying brain activity.    When art judged as beautiful is perceived, a particular part of the brain known as the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), a recognised pleasure and reward centre, increases in activity.   Zeki described his findings along with his co-author, Tomohiro Ishizu in a recent paper entitled, “Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty".

This is how the study was performed.  The twenty one volunteers (average age 27.5 years; all right handed; 9 male and 12 female) measured their perception of the beauty of paintings on a scale of 1-10.   Their rankings were divided into three groups from the least favourable to the most. 

One-three: unpleasant
Four-six: indifferent
Seven-nine: beautiful

Then, the volunteers viewed the paintings a second time as fMRI was performed.  Thus, a correlation was assessed between the participant’s earlier judgment of beautiful, indifferent or unpleasant art and their brain activity.  The intensity of the brain changes for the visual stimuli (A) demonstrated a linear relationship with the volunteer’s rating of beauty.   The more beautiful the painting to the volunteer, the greater the intensity of the increase in blood flow to the pleasure centre.


Figure 2: Brain activations related to the experience of beauty from Zeki’s and Ishizu’s paper, “Toward A Brain-Based Theory of Beauty.”


So, in Zeki’s and Ishizu’s study, when certain pieces of art were judged to be especially beautiful to a particular person, their pleasure/reward centre was stimulated to the degree they judged the art as beautiful.  This may have a real life application.  I can extrapolate that this positive feeling could be so intense to some that they would call it sublime.   It could well be part of a broader physiological correlate of what is called Stendhal’s syndrome.  Thereby, the altered state associated with this condition may not be psychosomatic at all, but instead physiologic in origin.  Although further work needs to be done, the research of Zeki and Ishizu brings us tantalisingly closer to a physiological understanding of at least one reaction to art previously described as psychosomatic.




NOTES:

Cover Image: Jean Benner L'Extase
Oil on canvas
Strasbourg Museum of Modern Art
Image Source