IL VOLTO SUBLIME DELLA BELLEZZA. LA SINDROME DI STENDHAL E I NEURONI SPECCHIO

The Beautyabsolute annihilates, hypnotizes, acts without measure. Sometimes it scares. According to the poet Khalil Gibran, Beauty is a force that inspires fear, which strikes at a point that frees itself from all will. There is a type of Beauty connoted through the aesthetic category of the sublime which with its face of Medusa petrifies and arouses fear in those who observe it and which has found its most shocking dimension in art. Faced with the sublime released by a work of art, one can feel overwhelmed, victims of an unknown and alienating power that generates states of ecstasy and hallucinations, giving life to the famous Stendhal Syndrome. Its name derives from the pseudonym of the French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, who for the first time described the feeling of upset that hit him as he admired,

The tide of emotion that overwhelmed me has flowed so deeply that it’s hard to distinguish it from awe. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty, I saw it up close, so to speak I touched it. I had reached that point of emotion where the celestial sensations given by the fine arts and passionate feelings meet. Coming out of Santa Croce, I had a heartbeat, life in me was exhausted, I walked with the fear of falling “.

The Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini gave the name of Stendhal Syndrome to this tide of overwhelming emotions in front of an artistic masterpiece, explaining it as a sort of shock of artistic embarrassment that springs from the observation of many works of great beauty all together in a short amount of time. It is evident that in whatever form it is intended, Beauty has the effect of involving anyone who is in front of it, arousing a wide range of emotions that go as far as daze and fear, but which in any case involve an active participation of the user with what observes.

But how are we able to recognize the beauty of a work of art? Why do we feel enraptured, involved, also carried away by non-figurative but abstract subjects during the aesthetic use, so much so that some come to experience Stendhal’s Syndrome? Is it possible to explain the aesthetic experience and the flow of emotions it is able to activate from a scientific point of view? In fact, in recent decades an important line of research has developed, that of neuroscience applied to aesthetics, which attempts to provide scientific answers to these questions.

The starting point that gave life to these hybrid studies between science and art was the discovery of the so-called “mirror neurons”, which took place in the 1990s in the Physiology laboratories of the University of Parma, by the team of neuroscientists led by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese researchers. It is a particular class of neurons present in the motor cortex of the brain that are activated by imitation when they see someone else make a gesture. In essence, these nerve cells reflect, exactly like a mirror, what they see in the brains of others. This very important discovery made it possible to give a scientific explanation to a psychological characteristic of the human mind, namely empathy., which is precisely the ability to identify with others, to feel with others, according to the Greek etymology of the term empatheia . On the other hand, the aesthetic experience is also based on an empathic relationship between the user and the work of art: specifically, what drives us to dwell on a painting, on a melody, on a sculpture is that quid , that “Something” that we ascribe to Beauty, which involves us, attracts us, makes us enter the work, binds us in some way to what we are observing.

The hypothesis that neuroscientists have formulated is that when something beautiful – be it an artistic or natural work – attracts us and causes us an emotion, our body enters a state of motor resonance and empathy that makes us live. on our skin the physical and emotional expressions represented in it. In fact, the aesthetic experience is synaesthetic,that is, it involves all our senses, as if it were an embodied simulation. To demonstrate this hypothesis, in 2007 Professor Rizzolatti’s team carried out an experiment, which consisted in submitting to volunteers some iconic images of classical and Renaissance sculptures, such as the Riace Bronzes or Botticelli’s Venus, universally considered a model of ideal Beauty. while their brain activity was recorded via functional magnetic resonance imaging. By applying an algorithm, neuroscientists altered the balance and proportion of these images, making them less beautiful.

Confrontando l’attività del cervello quando i volontari osservavano le immagini con le loro proporzioni canoniche e quindi belle, con quelle sproporzionate, si è osservato che quando un’opera colpisce per la sua Bellezza si “accendono” varie aree del cervello, tra cui l’insula, che è la stessa che si attiva quando viviamo gli stati emotivi degli altri, ossia quando proviamo empatia. Questo esperimento ci consente di affermare che noi riconosciamo la Bellezza perché entriamo in empatia con l’opera e con il soggetto in essa rappresentato. Per esempio, quando osserviamo  L’incredulità di San Tommaso di Caravaggio siamo trascinati nell’opera perché vedendo il dito del santo che si inserisce nella piaga di Cristo, si attivano le aree tattili del nostro cervello e ci immedesimiamo mente e corpo, secondo un processo che il Professor Vittorio Gallese definisce embodiment. Se poi siamo immersi in una sala museale eccezionalmente ricca di capolavori, i nostri neuroni specchio sono esposti al rischio di un’iperstimolazione che può sfociare nella Sindrome di Stendhal. Ciò accade non soltanto di fronte alla Bellezza delle opere d’arte, ma anche osservando spettacoli naturali come un paesaggio, un tramonto, il volto di un bambino che sorride.

Ma quando l’opera è astratta, cosa avviene nel nostro cervello? In che modo riusciamo a coglierne la Bellezza? Ancora una volta il team di neuroscienziati capitanato dal Professor Gallese, in collaborazione con lo storico dell’arte David Freedberg della Columbia University, hanno cercato una risposta a questa domanda mediante un esperimento simile a quello del Professor Rizzolatti. Sono state mostrate a un gruppo di volontari di estrazione sociale e culturale varia delle riproduzioni delle tele di Lucio Fontana, che solo alcuni di loro conoscevano, alternate a un’immagine modificata in cui il taglio era sostituito da una linea che fungeva da “stimolo di controllo”. I risultati di questo studio hanno mostrato che osservando le tele dell’artista tutti i soggetti rispondevano con l’attivazione del meccanismo dei neuroni specchio, ossia con empatia. Ciò avviene perché le tracce lasciate dal gesto dell’artista attivano il nostro cervello esattamente come se lo stessimo compiendo noi o come se rivivessimo in prima persona l’emozione racchiusa in quel gesto.

In the light of these studies, the experience of Beauty appears to us as a much deeper process than we can imagine, rooted in the body and experience of each of us. On the other hand, Stendhal had already suggested that “Beauty is a promise of happiness”, almost as if to underline the intuitive, subjective and emotional character of Beauty, which can only be approached through one’s own feelings.