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The Oddly Reassuring Quality of Surrealistic Art

When people are reminded of their own mortality, surrealist paintings they might otherwise find baffling can become sources of comfort.
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Giorgio de Chirico's 'The Red Tower,' 1913. (Photo: Public Domain)

Giorgio de Chirico's 'The Red Tower,' 1913. (Photo: Public Domain)

A person's taste in art is generally thought to be unchanging. A lover of Renaissance frescoes, for instance, isn't likely to suddenly become entranced by the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock.

But recently published research suggests one specific, uncomfortable circumstance can inspire us to appreciate a wider range of work. It finds people are more likely to forge a positive emotional connection with surrealistic art if they have just been reminded of their own mortality.

It has long been argued that, in the face of existential threats, art can evoke a comforting aura of collective meaning and transcendence. That's a fairly obvious dynamic with sacred works, but it can also be true of secular images that serve as poignant reminders of the beliefs that give one's life meaning.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, a research team led by psychologist Verena Graupmann of DePaul University reports surrealistic art can serve this same purpose. It argues that the disconcerting quality of such works allows viewers to liberate their thinking "from mundane limitations and fears" and forge "a connection with a more holistic level of meaning."

By evoking a dream-like state not unlike our unconscious stream of thoughts, "surrealistic art can provide meaning," the researchers conclude.

Writing in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Graupmann and her colleagues describe two experiments that back up their assertion. The first featured 87 undergraduates at a major German university.

Half began by complying with two specific instructions: "Describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you" and "Jot down what you think will happen to you as you physically die." The other half answered parallel questions about dental pain.

All then looked at images of two paintings—a realistic one by Edward Hopper, and a surrealistic one by Vladimir Kush, which depicts "a person on a free-standing ladder into a cloud bearing leaves and fruits." They then responded to a series of statements designed to determine the specific emotions each painting evoked in them, including anxiety, consolation, reassurance, and encouragement.

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."

This suggests that, rather than dismissing the odd artworks, they were seriously reflecting on them.

So by evoking a dream-like state not unlike our unconscious stream of thoughts, "surrealistic art can provide meaning," the researchers conclude. However, this occurs "only when the observer is motivated to engage in contemplation"—such as when one has been reminded of  one's coming death.

Perhaps those mundane prints of pretty flowers that line the walls of old-age homes should be replaced by works of Salvador Dali and his fellow surrealists. It turns out that people who are nearing the end of life may find in them a reassuring sense of meaning that had previously eluded them.