Virtual reality, art and nature create equally intense sense of 'the sublime'

March 17, 2021

Is art or nature more powerful? A new study looks at the question. (Pixabay/Eric Perlin)

An interdisciplinary team including psychologists and a philosopher has used virtual reality to test whether art or nature prompted different experiences of the sublime, marshaling cutting-edge technology in an effort to settle a centuries-old debate in art and philosophy.

"Sublime is kind of like awe — specifically, aesthetic awe," said Robert Clewis, a philosopher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics and an author of the paper, published Wednesday in PLOS One. "The sublime is this mixed feeling of joy and fear, or something pleasant and something tinged with something negative" — in one famous example, a poetic description or painting of a shipwreck. "We studied this from a psychological point of view."

In the study, 50 participants from Lombardy, Italy, were randomly assigned to view one of two 360-degree videos using a virtual reality headset. One was a rendering of Vincent Van Gogh's famous 1889 painting, "The Starry Night," while the second was a photorealistic panorama of the village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, the actual site Van Gogh depicted. This let the researchers compare an art-based stimulus with a very similar nature-based stimulus.

Before the participants put on the headsets, they answered questions about their experience of various emotions, their mood and both beauty and the sublime. After being immersed in a four and a half-minute video of either the painting or the village, they answered similar questions on their emotions, their sense of presence in the virtual scene, their interest in aesthetics and both beauty and the sublime.

Both the painting and the photorealistic village caused feelings of the sublime in the participants, regardless of their personality traits or other interest in aesthetics. The photorealistic village, however, elicited stronger perceptions of vastness and existential danger.

"Nature and art are equally good at evoking or bringing about the experience of the sublime," Clewis told The Academic Times. "But art and nature did it in a little bit of a different way. Nature brought more of a physical threat to people's security, and also a sense of presence — when they were looking through the VR goggles at the actual panorama, they think they're more there."

The results add to an ancient debate that first picked up steam in 1757, when philosopher Edmund Burke published his landmark treatise on the sublime. One of the first and most significant responses to it came from philosopher Immanuel Kant, who expanded on his 1764 book "Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime" in his hugely influential "Critique of Judgment" in 1790.

"It does validate both of their approaches, broadly construed," Clewis said, before adding an important caveat: While Burke and Kant focused on nature and, in Burke's case, poetry as elicitors of the sublime, this new research shows that paintings can evoke it, too, somewhat contradicting both philosophers. Interestingly, the photorealistic village caused more fear, according to Clewis, which could support Burke's view that nature-based sublimity is tinged with dread.

Like Kant and Burke, this group assumed that beauty and the sublime were opposed to each other. "That's also a huge controversy in the history of ideas," Clewis said, noting he thinks the two are at the very least distinct.

Clewis also believes that fear is not a necessary element of the sublime, another potentially controversial position. Fear, he argues, blocks the state of "disinterestedness" that makes people receptive to the sublime. "If I'm on the edge of the cliff and I'm panicking, I can't feel it," Clewis explained.

"I'm trying to convince the psychologists of this," he added — in addition to Clewis, the team includes psychologists from Italy and the United States. "This is what's so fun about interdisciplinary work, and what's so hard about it, too."

According to Clewis, the modern psychological debate on these issues started in 2003, with a groundbreaking paper on "awe" from Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt. Clewis thinks the sublime could be considered a specific type of awe. "I heard an interview with one of my now-coauthors, David Yaden," he said. "And I was like, 'Wait, you're talking about the sublime! Don't you realize that?'" This paper marks Clewis's second published collaboration with Yaden.

While Clewis sees virtual reality as a powerful tool for testing aesthetic theory, he knows it has some shortcomings. "It moves and shakes, and it could be a bit annoying," he said. And virtual reality, no matter how good, is not the same as the real thing, Clewis said — for one, it has music, which could tinge the experience.

The study was carried out on a WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) population, a common practice in psychology research. Clewis noted that the researchers did not look into whether participants had been to the village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, but all of them had seen "The Starry Night." Yet Clewis is optimistic about the possibilities of this new research, which satisfies his own longstanding interest in the sublime.

"I felt attracted to these descriptions of such a profound, intense experience — which I've had a few times," said Clewis, citing a childhood visit to the Grand Canyon. "I do think some of these questions can be informed by empirical research, if not finally answered by it."

The paper, "Nature versus art as elicitors of the sublime: A virtual reality study," published March 17 in PLOS One, was authored by Alice Chirico, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore; Robert Clewis, Gwynedd Mercy University and Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics; David Yaden, University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins Medicine; and Andrea Gaggioli, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and Istituto Auxologico Italiano. The study was led by Alice Chirico. 

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