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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

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Art Can Stir More than Just the Soul

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Museum visitor looks at art of museum visitors looking at art.A visitor looks at the work of German photographer Thomas Struth. The subject of the photograph are themselves visitors looking at famous works of art in the world’s great museums. (photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

Viewing and experiencing art in a museum can actually affect you physically.

As Tom Jacobs reports in Miller-McCuneresearchers outfitted visitors with an electronic glove while viewing an exhibit of contemporary art at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen in Switzerland. The special glove measured the viewer’s heart rate, skin conductivity, and movement from one place to another. 

"Researchers tracked participants as they strolled through the gallery, allowing them to record physiological reactions to specific artworks. Afterward, each participant was asked his or her response to six of the pieces — the three they spent the most time viewing, as well as three others chosen in advance."

The research team then surveyed the 373 participants, all adults, asking them to evaluate some of the art and describe their emotional response.

The Swiss researchers compared the respondents’ scores with the physical response data and found some intriguing correlations, which scored answers for each artwork based on five categories: Aesthetic Quality, Surprise/Humor, Negative Emotion, Dominance, and Curative Quality. The conclusion: an aesthetic appreciation of artwork creates a physical as well as an emotional reaction.

To be truly impactful, does art need to elicit a whole body experience? How does great art achieve this?

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