THE EFFECT OF RELIGIOUS VISUAL ART ON CONTEMPLATIVE BRAIN ACTIVITY

The research is the project of Ph.D in practice researcher Veronika Szendrő at University of Pécs Doctoral School of Art (HUN) in cooperation with Institute of Transdisciplinary Discoveries (HUN) 

Supervisors: Dr. Attila Sik (neurobiologist, founder of Institute of Transdisciplinary Discoveries at University of Pécs, Hungary), Dr. Péter Lengyel (artist, dean of University of Pécs Art Department, Hungary), Theoretical consultant: Dr. Bálint Veres (esthete, head of Ph.D. in Practice program at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, Hungary)




ABSTRACT

Recipients' way of accepting contemplative contents changes in the Western world. Art plays an important role in conveying religious experience. Understanding the visual patterns of religious art can help contemporary artists to create contemplative artworks. The starting point of the research is the analysis of the traditional religious symbols. Highlighting their common visual patterns can be the foundation of experimental artworks created in the project's first phase. In the second phase, brain activity measurements can verify the effects of the highlighted visual elements on the recipient’s brain activity. The intended outcome is to detect visual patterns that can trigger brain activity similar to those generated by religious contemplation and create a visual library based on the findings. The conclusions can be utilized by contemporary art and brain science.




OVERALL AIM

Earlier research of Andrew Newberg studies the religious symbols' effect on contemplative brain stimuli. His results hypothesize that religious art can participate in the creation of religious experience in a non-representative way (Newberg A. Et al, 2014).  The aim of the current research is to explore the effects of visual elements (such as composition balance, color balance, value, and proportions) used by traditional religious depictions in different art historical eras on brain activity. Earlier studies showed that specific brain areas, such as the periaqueductal gray play a key role in spirituality and religiosity (Ferguson M. A. Et al, 2021). Using brain activity mapping and self-reporting, we will validate which symbols trigger religious feelings. Using the results, we create a visual library of symbols that can be used in artworks in which the intended aim is to trigger religious contemplation. Our work will also provide a broader understanding of the impact of religious art on contemplative experience.





SIGNIFICANCE

According to secularization theses, the number of people connected to traditional religions in Western society has decreased (Davie G, 2010). Most people find new channels to consume contemplative content. Art plays an important role in conveying contemplative substances (Newberg A, d’Aquili E. G, 2000). Visual art can be a channel that can reform the way of accepting contemplation as it communicates universally. With the help of brain science, we can gain a deeper understanding of the biological background of religious brain activity. Furthermore, research results can help contemporary artists to create works of art that trigger contemplative brain activity in the recipients. This pilot study focuses on Christianity. A vast amount of visual arts objects (paintings, sculptures etc.) are available in digitized form, and the accessibility of test subjects with various degrees of Christian religiosity. In follow-up research, other religions will be investigated to gain a general insight into the symbol-religion-brain activity triangle. As traditional religions often cause social tension in our globalized culture, fine art could convey spiritual content without cultural separation.




References: 

Ferguson, et. al „A Neural Circuit for Spirituality and Religiosity Derived From Patients With Brain Lesions”. Biological Psychiatry 91, sz. 4 (2021): 380–88p
Newberg, Andrew B., és Johnson, Kyle D. „Pilot study of the effect of religious symbols on brain function: Association with measures of religiosity”. Spirituality in clinical practice (Washington, D.C.) Volume: 1, sz. Issue: 2 (2014): Page: 82-98.
Davie, Grace. The sociology of religion. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2007.



Mobirise

MY SEMESTER AT YALE

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I spent a semeter at Yale Divinity School with my research project

my supervisor was Sally M. Promey
Professor of Religion and Visual Culture; Coordinator of the Program in Religion and the Arts; Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies; and Director, Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion Yale University

What I was doing there 

I was researching religious depictions mainly from the Christian tradition. I digitized thousands of images that I will categorize with an open-source visual analysis software developed by Yale Digital Humanities Lab  

Mobirise

CURRENT FINDINGS IN THE TOPIC

Newberg, Andrew B., és Johnson, Kyle D. „Pilot study of the effect of religious symbols on brain function: Association with measures of religiosity”. Spirituality in clinical practice (Washington, D.C.) Volume: 1, sz. Issue: 2 (2014): Page: 82-98.

 Andrew Newberg's measurements

Neurologist Andrew Newberg showed four types of symbols for his subjects with different religious backgrounds while measuring their brain with fMRI: religious positive, religious negative, non-religious positive, non-religious negative and neutral 

Based on his measurement result, he concluded that the emotionally adaptive ability of different beliefs is related to how the brain perceives religious symbols in the insula and amygdala


His hypothesis

Earalier research of Andrew Newberg hypotesizes that religious and non-religious symbols affect various brain areas differenty; ie. primary visual cortex, lateral occipital cortex, fusiform gyrus, amygdala, insula

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