Piero della Francesca (Tuscany 1412? – 1492, Tuscany),The Senigallia Madonna and Child with Two Angels Tempera and oil on wood. Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Most of my artist friends can speak about the exhilarating and very personal experience of being deeply moved by a work of art. These experiences so profound for me, and there are certain people I share that awe with because I know they will understand. I also appreciate when others describe their powerful art encounters as well. Friend and artist Altoon Sultan writes exquisitely about her responses to art works on her blog Studio and Garden. And the recent volume of Philip Guston‘s writings, Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, is full of his lifelong passion for particular paintings and artists. Throughout that volume his adoration of Piero della Francesca‘s fresco paintings is clearly expressed.
But awe is not just for artists. Donna Tartt‘s most recent novel, The Goldfinch, has a small painting at its center that has enormous power over many of its characters and their lives. In his book Pictures and Tears, James Elkins references the Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition that results in rapid heartbeat, dizziness and even fainting when viewing a work of art. Named after the famous French writer who visited the Giotto frescos in Florence and wrote that he “reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations…everything spoke so vividly to my soul,” over a hundred cases have been reported among visitors at the Uffizi Gallery Museum in Florence.
Elkins’ book is also a reminder of how often that powerful physical response is purposefully quelled. When Elkins asked his art professional colleagues if they had ever cried in front of a painting, most of them dismissed a response of that intensity as unprofessional. A few acknowledged that it had happened to them when they were young, before they became a credentialed “art professional.”
Any person who willingly allows herself be broken wide open by an object, an experience or a concept may be one definition of an artist. But a recent study conducted at Stanford suggests that this overwhelming response is more than just an emotional reaction. There are many benefits resulting from experiencing a sense of awe.
From a description of the study by the Association for Psychological Science:
It doesn’t matter what we’ve experienced—whether it’s the breathtaking scope of the Grand Canyon, the ethereal beauty of the Aurora Borealis, or the exhilarating view from the top of the Eiffel Tower—at some point in our lives we’ve all had the feeling of being in a complete and overwhelming sense of awe.
Awe seems to be a universal emotion, but it has been largely neglected by scientists—until now.
Psychological scientists Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management devised a way to study this feeling of awe in the laboratory. Across three different experiments, they found that jaw-dropping moments made participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer time to help others.
The researchers found that the effects that awe has on decision-making and well-being can be explained by awe’s ability to actually change our subjective experience of time by slowing it down. Experiences of awe help to brings us into the present moment which, in turn, adjusts our perception of time, influences our decisions, and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.
That’s bad news for any art types who willfully turned off their awesomeness meter, but it is great news for the rest of us. The many ancillary benefits of awe are reasons enough for all of us to let it rip!
(For a quick and breathtaking celebration at the biological advantage of being awestruck, check out this video by Jason Silva.)