Stendhal Syndrome or Florence Syndrome is a psychological disorder that causes hyper physiological activities and even hallucinations when one is exposed to sublime beauty, especially a piece of artworks. The disorder is described first by the French novelist Stendhal after his visit to Florence where he viewed art of Michelangelo, Giotto, etc.
Lisztomania is an intense hysteria towards Liszt during his concert. It is said that the music of Liszt heightens the emotions and spirits of audience to the greatest level.
The above two disorders are certainly not included in DSM-V, but they are quite popular in non-scientific context to describe the ecstasy when exposed to something or in an environment with significant cultural and aesthetic value.
The first time when I visited Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I saw this painting of Van Gogh in person for the first time in my life.
Though there were so many tourists in front of it, it made me almost burst into tears. Van Gogh was once my childhood hero and I used to be the best student in my painting class when it came to imitate Van Gogh. Apart from this personal reason, this painting in real was just so different from pictures from a book or Internet. It was so vivid, which was almost alive.
Back in my middle school, once in a music class, the teacher played the “Symphony No.6” of Beethoven. I remember I was sitting there and trying to hold my tears while listening. I was overwhelmed by the music. It was not even a live concert.
Presumably, emotions conveyed by the artworks are universal. The symphonies of Beethoven and painting of Van Gogh are classic because they provoke emotions. However, I was crying over the Starry Night and the “Symphony No.6” while others may feel relatively indifferent but are moved by a Renaissance painting or a piece of Liszt.
We all have different tastes. Moreover, some people are simply indifferent to art. They may never want to go to an art museum or may fall asleep during a Beethoven concert. It is said that art is everywhere in our life, so lack of exposure should not be an explanation.
So, is art universal? Is it equally risky for everyone to develop Stendhal Syndrome or Lisztomania?
According to neuroscientists, every human behavior has a neural counterpart, which technically we cannot argue against. It is said that the reward system in our brain responds to beauty. It is normal that a pretty face, a nice body, or a beautiful landscape can offer a sense of pleasure. If art functions as an imitation of life, it signifies realistic objects. In this case, art does stimulate reward system; more specifically art about women, men and landscapes.
It is also said that same brain areas involved in emotions are activated when exposing to artworks, which explains partially Stendhal Syndrome and Lisztomania. If art provokes emotions, people can be overwhelmed by these emotions in the same way as being sad after a break-up or being happy talking with close friends. Embodied cognition grants people the ability to feel being drawn into something. For example, one may feel inside a painting while standing in front of it.
Mirror neurons are possible neural structure that underlies this process. Thus, when exposing to an artwork, mirror neurons are activated and make people feel the enchanting power of the work. In addition, a lot of artworks are symbolical, so they require meta-analysis. When dealing with this kind of art, proper education is required to analyze the philosophical aspect. Notably, the emotional part is not excluded in these artworks. On the contrary, some symbolical works are even better at provoking emotions such as some abstract expressionist works.
These neurological explanations suggest that art is universal because it is biological. Yet, these cannot explain why people have different tastes for art as well as why some people are just not into art.
The peak shift principle raised by Vilayanur Ramachandran suggests that people “have an established response to a specific stimulus, and we respond even more vigorously to exaggerated versions of that stimulus.” If different people have different established responses, they would definitely respond to different pieces of art. For example, if one has never experienced the heartbroken break-up, he or she would not be empathic to an artwork related to this topic. The principle of mirror neurons is that one recognizes the action that others are performing, which is based on the fact that one has to know what that action is. The principle should be similar for an emotion.
Nevertheless, there are people who do not enjoy art that much. Perhaps they have never experienced any emotion at all, but this is rather theoretical. The possible explanation will be that the current art world does not satisfy everyone’s aesthetic value. As I argued above, people respond to different stimuli, so these indifferent people can just be responding to something that is not yet included in art. Therefore, some people would spend 124,000 Euros to buy a tin can of fecal matter of the artist. If I have that amount of money, I will probably buy it too and throw it back on the face of that artist, but by all means, some people do appreciate it. This may be too extreme to be an example. Let’s think about Quentin’s films in which he aestheticizes violence. A great number of people appreciate this violence he presents, which is counter-intuitive. Yet we think that his films are art.
What’s more, neuroscientists are considering art as evolutionarily important, so art is as vital as food for people. This is contradictory to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which indicates that physiological need such as food is at the bottom of the pyramid, while self-actualization need is at the top such as art.
Thus, people do not need art to survive. This is true in our world because except a small amount of people who are being called artists, art is not a basic need for most of us. Maybe art is not evolutionary and for those people who do not like art, they just happen to fulfill their self-actualization need by other means or they have not met more basic needs yet.
So, is art universal? Yes and no. Art has biological underpinnings, so everyone with normal neurological functions should be able to appreciate art, either because of inherent emotions or inherent beauty. Yet due to the limitation of current art world in terms of presentation and also of the psychological need, art is not universal.
Chatterjee, A. (2015). The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Innocenti, C., Fioravanti, G., Spiti. R., & Faravelli, C. (2014). The Stendhal syndrome between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. Riv Psichiatr, 49(2), 61-6. doi: 10.1708/1461.16139.
Zambon, K. (2013, November 13). How Engaging With Art Affects the Human Brain. AAAS. Retrieved from: http://www.aaas.org/news/how-engaging-art-affects-human-brain