Want to ‘Get’ Weird Art? Think About Death

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A man looks at Rene Magritte's "La Reproduction" painting at the 'Surreal Things' exhibition in London's Victoria and Albert Museum.
Photo: Chris Young/AFP/Getty Images

Most of us have spent at least a little bit of time standing in front of a painting in a museum, nodding meaningfully despite having no idea what exactly we were looking at. (Why are the clocks melting?) Over at Pacific Standard, Tom Jacobs runs down some interesting new research suggesting that when people are primed with thoughts of death, they process weird art in a different, more thoughtful way than they do when they’re not focused on the morbid.

The research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, consisted of two experiments in which participants looked at strange art. Some were primed beforehand to think about death, while others were primed to think about either neutral stuff or dental pain. 

Jacobs explains:

The researchers found that both paintings were described as similarly reassuring to participants who had written about dental pain. But for those who had been contemplating their own death, “the surrealistic painting emerges as more of a resource of reassurance” than the realistic one. “This corresponds to the idea that—although at first sight difficult to decode—surrealistic art offers access to reassurance on a different level of understanding.”

The second study used functional MRI technology to measure what was happening within the brains of 15 volunteers (also Germans) as they looked at 32 realistic and 32 surrealistic paintings. They were primed by being exposed to pairs of words that were either death-related, disgust-related, or neutral. (Terror Management Theory argues there is a strong emotional association between disgust and death, since “organic, creaturely things remind us of our mortal bodies.”)

The researchers found different patterns of brain activity in participants if they were primed with thoughts of death or disgust (as opposed to an emotionally neutral subject). As those study participants looked at the surrealistic paintings, neural activation in the precuneus and the medial prefrontal cortex—regions of the brain that have been associated with “self-referential processing”—rose to “the generally higher level of activation that is observed when people are viewing naturalistic paintings.”

The standard caveats about psych labs versus the real world apply, of course, but this study adds some heft to the common-sense idea that art can bring us different benefits — and elicit different types of thinking — depending on our mind-set. Definitely an idea worth experimenting with before your next trip to your local modern art museum.