QuestionCan you get high on art?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts. We asked a neuroscientist, an art critic and a neuroesthetics specialist if we can experience a high—or something similar—from viewing art.
The average person spends about 30 seconds looking at a work of art. We know in that span of time, the viewer will have some sort of emotional reaction, however subtle, whether it's excitement, repulsion or simply boredom. We also know that drugs and art have a long, storied history together. But can looking at a work of art generate a high that comes naturally, no dealers speedialed?
Can it cause a chemical change in our body? Can it affect our perception of reality? Can it serve as a stimulant, a hallucinogenic, a depressant, or anything that mimics these effects? We spoke to a neuroesthetics expert, an art critic and a neuroscientist to find out.
Dr. Elena Agudio
Berlin-based art historian and curator, curator for Association of Neuroesthetics
In my opinion, absolutely yes. It’s a kind of excitement you can have; it’s not only cultural and psychological, it’s really due to certain mechanisms in the brain that are being activated. For example, I’m working as artistic director of a platform of research between neuroscience and art, and I can tell you that there is some specific research on the aesthetic experience of an art work. I don’t think a work of art is essentially something aesthetic, I’m not interested in the beauty of the artwork. I can agree on the fact that something happens in your brain when you’re feeling an artwork, especially with your body. People talk about...when you see some movement or something that’s suggesting the possibility of imitating movement in your mind, then you feel a more empathic connection the work/
Some scientists are going too far and saying that there’s an area in the brain dedicated to the perception of beauty, and that it’s activated when you are looking at art that is making you feel high. But me, no I don’t want to go too far away; I don’t think that’s an interesting point. But as far as being transported somewhere and feeling a kind of embodied experience when perceiving an art work, yes. There’s, of course, an activation of chemical things that happens when you’re in love with somebody, but this idea of the experience of beauty that provokes that, it’s something else, it’s more complex, something that’s triggering these feelings and something chemical.
Art critic, curator, founder and editor of Art F City
I guess you could get high on a very wet painting or some sort of experiential-based art work that required viewers to take drugs. But generally speaking the answer is no. Art can make you happy. It's not going to turn you into some sort of all-knowing all-seeing super human with the munchies.
Visual neuroscientist, head of Smith-Kettlewell Brain Imaging Center
I’m not sure it would be equivalent. This idea of an altered state of consciousness one gets when going to an art gallery may relate. My typical experience is if I go into an art gallery and look at the works, I go into a state of appreciation for these artworks that convey different senses, emotions, different empathetic complexes or aesthetic experience somehow, then I go outside and it seems like everything I look at is an artwork.
So what I experience, and I think other people experience, is a world of utilitarian objects, things you deal with in everyday life; having been to an art gallery, you suddenly see them in a new light. In that sense, you have an altered state of consciousness from going to an art gallery.
"She told me that when she was going to art school in the '70s, she tripped on LSD almost every week and she said she felt it was her 'moral duty as an artist to take the trip.'"
Ken Johnson on Deborah Kass
Alan Watts used to say after taking LSD that instead of just being, things seemed to be gestures that presented themselves in some meaningful way, like “look at what I am,” as if they were expressing their essence at a level you hadn’t appreciated before. It’s like the idea of a gesture. A gesture is a movement that is meaningful, it’s not just something moving. It’s saying something.
That’s part of what’s notable about some of these high experiences. One of the things you get very commonly from taking marijuana is that your appreciation of music becomes much greater. Music has this special quality which everyone appreciates. Emotions are being injected straight into your ears. Somehow, it reaches the emotional part of your brain in a very direct fashion even though all it is a series of sounds. Other series of sounds don’t have that quality. I don’t have any formal scientific evidence, but I attribute it to the music actually tapping into the flow of neural signals in the emotional part of your brain, that it’s mimicking that sort of flow. Auditorially, it goes in and activates the emotional part of your brain.
I would say you tend to get that endorphin release when a work of art really grabs you. It gives you a novel experience you haven’t had before. It’s very much in the word “experience”—you really experience it in that sense of novelty. You haven’t had that experience before. I think art can achieve that—if you’re lucky.
This is your brain on Michelangelo
Michelangelo's Expulsion from Paradise makes the viewer feel like they're there alonside Adam, fending off blows. A team of neuroscientists tested ten subjects using this fresco panel, asking them to examine the wrist detail from the painting. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the researchers monitored what happened in their brains. The researchers found that the image excited areas in the primary motor cortex that controlled the observers’ own wrists.
"Just the sight of the raised wrist causes an activation of the muscle,” reported David Freedberg, the Columbia University art history professor involved in the study.