Art and the Altered State: Correlates of the Sublime

Short Description

Stendhal Syndrome, thought by many to be an emotional reaction, may be more influenced by science. The first of Dr. Mueller's series on Art and the Altered State on

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 recognized 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"

For the rest of the article published on and authored by Shirley M. Mueller, please go to Art and the Altered State: Science Correlates with the Sublime.