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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.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

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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The better we understand human psychology and neurology, the more we will uncover the underpinnings of religion. Some of them, like the attachment system, push us toward a belief in gods and make departing from it extraordinarily difficult. But it is possible.

We can be better as a species if we recognize religion as a man-made construct. We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.

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J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and a trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Clare Aukofer, a medical writer, have struck a nerve with their op-ed "Science and Religion: God Didn’t Make Man; Man Made Gods" in Monday’s Los Angeles Times.

Like the authors, I marvel at the advances and insights brought about by recent DNA research and neuro-imaging studies. How these findings help us better understand the psychological and physiological underpinnings of our predilections of religious belief is of great value. Perhaps this could help us understand people of other cultures and religious traditions better.

But, I thought we were past the “God is dead” argument. So why do the authors insist that people can “make departing” from innate religious impulses “possible” rather than embracing our physical and mental adaptions. Our ability to use reason may be a wonderful complement to ask the spiritual questions that elevate our transcendent natures rather than ground them all the time in practicality.

And, perhaps, Thomson and Aukofer’s use of divisive statements such as “religion hijacks these traits” makes religious believers the “out-group” and atheists who rely on reason the “in group.” Even as this non-believer writes this post, I sense that the dichotomy of the two poles is a false one that ignores all the other wonderful adaptations that may make us mere mortals and extravagant beings. Let’s have a more inclusive conversation that uses science as an instrument of understanding rather than a blunt object to make others wrong.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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