Pain is all in the mind. That's what a hard taskmaster on a sports field might say. Of course it is true - pain is in the mind - as it is our brain that tells us something hurts. Recent Italian research claims to prove that patients looking at beautiful works of art really suffer less pain than those looking at a bare wall or water jug. Maybe they are on to something.
Research coordinated by the neurological and psychiatric sciences department at the University of Bari found that looking at beautiful art lowers pain levels in hospital patients.
Lead researcher and neurologist, Dr Marina de Tommaso, and a team asked 12 men and 12 women to pick 20 paintings they considered most ugly and most beautiful from a selection of 300 works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso and Botticelli from an online art website.
They were then asked to contemplate either the beautiful paintings, ugly paintings, or a blank panel while the team administered short laser pulses on their hands causing a pricking sensation.
The subjects rated the pain as being a third less intense while viewing the beautiful paintings compared with the pain levels endured while contemplating paintings they considered ugly 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.
"Hospitals have been designed to be functional but we think that their aesthetic aspects should be taken into account too," Tommaso said in an interview with New Scientist.
Art the patients responded positively to included Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh and The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. Works that were deemed ugly included art by Pablo Picasso, Antonio Bueno and Fernando Botero.
And if sceptics think that this simply proves that people are happier looking at pretty things, the researchers' abstract boils their conclusion down to rational science: "Our results provide evidence that pain may be modulated at cortical level by the aesthetic content of the distracting stimuli," it says. So there.
Tommaso and her colleagues Michele Sardaro and Paolo Livrea argue that pain is genuinely affected by thought, "including attention and emotions".
Their paper continues: "The view of paintings previously appreciated as beautiful produced lower pain scores."
The brain scans showed "a clear inhibition of the P2 wave amplitude, localised in the anterior cingulate cortex".
Tommaso offered some comfort to health institutions that will not be putting aside any extra funding for beautiful art: "Beauty obviously offers a distraction that ugly things do not. But at least there is no suggestion that ugly surroundings make the pain worse," she said.
If hospitals do want to spend money on beautification, the Bari study has at least offered administrators some good guidance: do not rush to buy that Francis Bacon painting, go for a Botticelli instead.
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