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The Stendhal Syndrome

In the electronic glare of Hollywood movies, television, computer screens, I-Pads and Kindles, it wouldn’t be a shock to learn that looking at museum art had slacked off. But the shock is that it hasn’t. Scientific studies show that visiting an art museum is an emotional experience that affects both brain activity and heart rates.

Giotto's fresco "St Francis before the Sultan" (Trial by Fire), 1325
Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence

About the brain studies:

As Smithsonian.com reports, neuroscientists along with an art historian asked ten people to focus on Adam’s wrist in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting “Expulsion from Paradise,” which shows Adam attempting to keep an angel’s sword at bay by bending back his wrist.

Monitoring brain activity with a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the researchers saw that Adam’s wrist action stimulated the part of the primary motor cortex that controls the viewers’ own wrists; “Just the sight of the raised wrist causes an activation of the muscle,” reports David Friedberg, the Columbia University art history professor who worked on the study.

Such cause and effect explains why people looking at Degas’ ballerinas say they experience the sensation of dancing. As the Smithsonian report put it, “the brain mirrors actions depicted on the canvas.”

Studying how the brain processes art by mapping blood flow and oxygenation in the brain is part of the growing field called neuroaesthetics.

About the heart rate studies:

Not long ago, a team of researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland placed special gloves that measure physiological responses on 373 visitors perusing the halls of Kunstmuseum St. Galen, a Swiss museum that collects paintings by artists like 19th century Expressionist Edvard Munch. The visitors also answered a questionnaire that demonstrated racing hearts were part of their experience.

Francis Bacon had it wrong, then, when he wrote, “Hardly anyone really feels about painting. They read things into it—even the most intelligent people—they think they understand it, but very, very few people are aesthetically touched by painting."

The Swiss research, as well as the Smithsonian report, reveals that sensory experience lives.

It should be pointed out to the science world, though, it’s late to the story of sensory reaction to art. After all, the Stendhal syndrome - rapid heartbeat, dizziness and even hallucinations in the face of art – has been known since the French writer Henri-Marie Beyle (penname Stendhal) wrote of his experience during a visit to Florence in 1817.

On seeing Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Stendhal was bowled-over:

"Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call 'nerves.' Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling."

Stendhal’s experience isn’t unique. Many art lovers report dizziness, even fainting looking at art in Florence. In 1979 Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, described more than 100 similar cases among tourists in Florence.

Even so, making a science of the art experience may not encapsulate it. Smithsonian.com quotes neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran at the University of California at San Diego offers a cautionary note: “We have barely scratched the surface…the quintessence of art, and of genius, still eludes us—and may elude us forever.”

I’m with him. It’s probably a good idea to allow art (and maybe life, too) to keep its deepest secrets, don’t you think?