THE power of art to heal emotional wounds is well known, but could contemplating a beautiful painting have the same effect on physical pain?
To investigate, Marina de Tommaso and a team from the University of Bari in Italy asked 12 men and women to pick the 20 paintings they considered most ugly and most beautiful from a selection of 300 works by artists such as da Vinci and Botticelli.
They were then asked to contemplate either the beautiful paintings, or the ugly painting, or a blank panel while the team zapped a short laser pulse at their hand, creating a pricking sensation.
The subjects rated the pain as being a third less intense while they were viewing the beautiful paintings, compared with contemplating the ugly paintings or the blank panel. Electrodes measuring the brain's electrical activity suggested a reduced response to the pain when the subject looked at beautiful paintings
While distractions are known to reduce pain in hospital patients, de Tommaso says this is the first result to show that beauty plays a part. "Hospitals have been designed to be functional, but we think that their aesthetic aspects should be taken into account too," she says.