We know that art can enliven our space and stimulates our senses but what if it goes deeper than that. Does art have the power to change our energy, our outlook, even our response to pain? Katie Scott looks at the ‘neuroaesthetics’ – what happens in the brain when we spend time with extraordinary art…
In 1811, French author, Stendhal, stood in front of Volterrano’s frescoes in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. So overwhelmed was he that he fell into a trance-like state. ‘I had attained to that supreme degree of sensibility where divine intimations of art merge with the impassioned sensuality of emotion,’ he later wrote. Minutes later, his heart started racing and his head swimming. He ran from the church; found a bench nearby; took out some poetry and read to calm his nerves.
Over a century later, in 1979, a psychologist at Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence called Dr Graziella Magherini revealed that his experience was far from unique. She started using the term ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ to describe the state of some of the tourists who came into her ward. They had suffered symptoms ranging from panic attacks to heart palpitations whilst they were in the thrall of some of the city’s greatest visual artworks.
A trip to the Tate Modern has never sent me into such paroxysms; but art works have definitely moved me. Pierre Lemarquis can explain why. He is a French author, musician and clinical neuroscientist. His book, /L’Art Qui Guérit/, takes examples from the Palaeolithic period right up to the end of the 20th Century and looks at them through the lens of ‘neuroaesthetics’; what
happens in the brain when we view art and what is the impact.
‘Art sculpts and caresses our brain: by stimulating our senses, it generates appropriate reactions according to our knowledge and our memories, but the process modifies our neuronal connections and enriches them, thus opening our minds.’ The impact is a re-wiring of the brain; but there are also more immediate effects. He adds: ‘If we like the work of art, it activates our pleasure and reward system, which floods our brain with pleasant, antidepressant chemicals, reducing our pain; calming us down or stimulating our vitality.’
These chemicals are hormones and neurotransmitters, and include serotonin; oxytocin; dopamine; and even adrenalin if the artwork stimulates rather than calms. And they make us feel good or simply just feel. Lemarquis has seen the impact first hand. In his book, he tells the story of a woman who had horrific wounds on the legs. » She asked for a painting of a dancer to be hung in her hospital room. He relates ‘…via mimicry, she started trying to move her legs, while simultaneously asking for fewer doses of painkillers’. The painting offered a distraction and encouragement.
Lemarquis is president of an organisation called L’invitation à la beauté, founded by the psychologist Laure Mayoud. Sponsored by WHO and UNESCO, it promotes ‘cultural prescriptions’, loaning artworks to hospitals. A report published in 2019 by WHO collated data from 3000 studies and ‘identified a major role for the arts in the prevention of ill health; promotion of health; and management and treatment of illness across the lifespan.’ In Canada, some patients have been ‘prescribed’ trips to the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, whilst ArtNet published details last year of a three-month trial at Brugmann hospital in Brussels offering free access to five art institutions across the city to selected patients. Lemarquis hopes more is to come. ‘May medicine once again become an art, and art become part of medicine so that our humanity in its entirety and its specificity (and not only our illnesses) are taken into account,’ he says.
Art may not be a cure but it has certainly been proven to help patients better manage their conditions; and will therefore help them heal. Viewing art is a component of a healthy life, argues art curator and consultant Leyla Fakhr. ‘I think we are often completely unaware how dependent our mental health is on the arts, because a cultural void will inevitably lead to an unbalanced life.’
‘Every sense in our being has the ability to be stimulated by the arts. If we did not have this injection of inspiration of in our quotidian life, we would live a flat existence, sort of a Groundhog Day where every day would just merge into another. Art fundamentally has the power to shift energy, wake us up and bring us out of ourselves and connect to others.’
In our own homes, we make the decision – consciously or unconsciously – as to what energy we want to surround ourselves with in our choices of artworks.
For many, buying art is an investment and for others, part of their decorating scheme; but Fakhr believes there are still reasons why you are drawn to certain works. ‘Those reasons become your story,’ she says and they are often connected to your personal and visual memories. ‘As you expand your collection, it’s like you learn more about yourself and you’re building a whole narrative or a visual diary based on your experiences.’ Art sparks an emotional response and this is personal to each of us, whether linked to memories or not.
This is supported by a study in which there was little agreement between participants as to which pictures they found moving but there was a shared neurological response. Ellen Winner is Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Boston College and also directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which ‘focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children as well as adults’. In her book, How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration, she details a project carried out by neuroscientists Edward Vessel and Nava Rubin, and literary scholar Gabrielle Starr. The researchers placed participants in a functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scanner and then showed them 109 paintings. They were then asked to rate the pictures on a scale of one to four as to how much they moved them. While agreement was low as to which pictures were moving; the researchers found that one area of the brain was activated more by pictures given a four on the scale than those with lower ratings. ‘This area of the brain is associated with self-reflection, looking inward, and thinking about oneself’, writes Winner. Art allows us to explore our own emotions; but with a degree of distance. This explains our fascination with artworks depicting disturbing or upsetting subjects. As Winner states: ‘…art provides a safe space to experience these emotions and to turn inward to savour them – safe because we know it is art and not reality.’
At the same time, though, says Lemarquis, mirror neurons activated when we view art, allow us to feel like we are in the artists’ shoes. Winner wrote for Aeon magazine: ‘I argue that we’re drawn to works of art because they connect us quite directly to the imagined mind of the artist. We believe that artists mean something by what they produce, even if it’s sometimes difficult to discern just what meanings were intended. And thus, whenever we take something to be art, rather than accident or functional artefact, we automatically read into it intentionality and meaning. When we look at a Rembrandt, we feel like we’re reading a message sent to us today by this long-ago genius.’ Interestingly, this effect is lessened if an artwork is being viewed on screen; and dramatically impacted, as Winner found from research, if the viewer is told that the work is a fake.
By buying works of art, we can potentially engage with an artist in person. Fakhr tells of clients who have built personal relationships with artists whose work they have collected. In some cases collectors can connect to local artists and at times, they have even become part of the artists’ story. But she also notes that art strengthens other relationships. ‘An artwork can trigger conversations. People may come into your home and view the work as they would in a gallery. They then ask questions and it is those questions that make life interesting.’
Although there isn’t empirical evidence for this, Winner also raises the question of whether art makes us more empathetic. Fakhr argues it does: ‘It gives us an insight into socio and political issues but also history.’ She points to the work of Kara Walker, who makes cut-out silhouettes that depict historical narratives that are haunted by violence, sexuality and drama. ‘She exposes the tragic legacy of slavery… but also makes reference to contemporary racial and gender stereotypes’, Fakhr states adding: ‘What is so wonderful about artists like Walker is that she brings to light highly loaded subjects in the most sublime and playful format. This disarms her audience, but also asks them to connect to the work purely on emotional levels rather than purely intellectual.’
For Fakhr, art achieves this in a way that a news article or academic paper simply cannot. As a woman of Iranian heritage, she argues the art also offers an insight into what conditions the artist was working under; what troubles they are navigating; or fears they were harbouring. ‘Some of the art works from Iran are expressions of how it feels to navigate in a place where politics is always at the base of everything that you do. How do you navigate that as an artist when you’re not freely allowed to express yourself yet, you have so much to say.’ She argues that many viewers will find a mirror to their own experiences in this – wherever they live; and find a shared humanity. ‘Art brings in another perspective on how to see or navigate through the world,’ she states.
The caveat is that we need to take time out to immerse ourselves in artworks. Winner talks about the experience of being in a gallery as not conducive to this. There are the distractions of other people, whether with us or not; the noise and the smells. Lemarquis states: ‘It takes us two seconds to reject a work of art and four seconds to become interested in it, usually because it – consciously or unconsciously – evokes a pleasant memory.’ In our own homes, we can choose to take this time. The impact may not be obvious but it is there.