Surrealistic Art Makes More Sense After Contemplating Death: MRI Study

In this unusual study, researchers used MRI to measure how certain triggers (associations with dental pain vs. contemplating one’s own mortality) could affect the human brain’s affinity for understanding surrealistic artworks.

The study, called Ceci n’est pas la mort: Evidence for the recruitment of self-reference from surrealistic art under mortality salience, was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

“Previous research has demonstrated that death reminders influence how we perceive art,” write the study’s authors. “In the context of terror management theory, this has been explained by the death-transcending quality of art to convey cultural meaning.”

Vladimir KushIndeed, the researchers found that their subjects were more likely to make a connection with a surrealistic artwork (such as the Vladimir Kush piece pictured) if they had, moments before, been asked to consider their own death. The 15 participants underwent fMRI while given verbal cues that were either neutral, disgust-related, or death-related. The researchers found that the latter cues invoked greater activation in the precuneus and the medial prefrontal cortex, brain regions associated with “self-referential processing,” as the researchers put it, meaning these cues prompted the study’s participants to think and reflect deeply on what they were viewing.

The researchers concluded that this phenomenon occurs …”only when the observer is motivated to engage in contemplation,” leaving readers of this bizarre yet fascinating MRI study to conclude that terminal patients may experience some of the most profound insights and rich inner realizations while viewing such works.


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