A group of psychologists is connecting around a remarkable field of research: Studying “the sublime.”

Inside the mind

Virtual reality could solve a century-spanning philosophical mystery

It’s the feeling you get when looking out at a vast landscape like the Grand Canyon or staring up at a larger-than-life painting of the German wilderness in an art gallery — a little bit full of awe, but also a little bit full of dread.

This uncanny feeling is called “the sublime,” and artists, psychologists, and philosophers alike have been attempting to wrangle it for centuries.

Now, thanks to immersive VR technology, a team of psychologists have found a way to quantify these feelings and compare how they differ between different mediums — namely, between the real environment and a painted replica. In this case, the team looked at Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” and photos of the French landscape that inspired it.

The research was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE by a team an Italian team.

“One can imagine similarities and differences between one’s reactions to these two scenes [in part] because one would know that one elicitor is real and the other is a representation,” write the authors, which then provokes the question: “Does this distinction between ‘real’ and ‘representation’ matter when it comes to experiencing the sublime?”

To study the feelings of the sublime, researchers had participants view this famous van Gogh painting, “The Starry Night”, in VR.

Vincent Van Gogh / Google Cultural Institute

What’s new — Using VR to investigate emotional states — which psychologists consider the sublime to be — itself isn’t necessarily new. But the researchers behind this research say that their study represents the first time VR has been used to study whether different mediums — for example, photography vs a painting — can elicit different sublime feelings.

These feelings can be hard to reconcile when you feel them yourself, let alone to quantify them. But that’s exactly what this research team set out to do with the help of 50 twenty-something participants and a small collection of VR headsets.

Why it matters — Philosophers and psychologists alike have long sought a better understanding of this peculiar human feeling, and now VR offers an opportunity to finally understand how it unfolds in the minds of individuals.

Alice Chirico, the study’s first author and post-doctoral researcher at the Catholic University of Milan, tells Inverse that a fine-tuned understanding of emotion through VR, which has also been used as a way to explore feelings of empathy, could help us all better understand what it means to be human.

“We are moving towards a democratization of human experiences, which are not always accessible to all people,” says Chirico. “[W]e have just opened a door [and] there is so much to say and discover.”

Sweeping landscapes — both painted and real — have a strange effect on the human psyche. In this research, scientists attempted to understand exactly how these effects might differ.

Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Art Collection/Getty Images

Here’s the background — When it comes to defining the sublime, two historic scholars offer useful definitions.

The philosopher Kant’s ideas of sublime, as summarized by the research team, say that it is “... elicited by something that is so vast that it seems unable to be taken in or grasped by our senses or imagination,” while the team writes that philosopher Edmund Burke instead favors defining the sublime as being elicited “by natural stimuli perceived to be much more powerful than us.”

To put a little more plainly, the sublime stimulus could come from art, poetry, speeches, or nature and is associated with evoking feelings of both amazement and fear.

What they did — The research team first established a base level sense of aesthetics and emotional range for the group of 50 participants, all of whom were volunteers from the researcher’s local Lombardy region of Italy.

This baseline was established by administering a preliminary survey for participants to report to what extent they typically experienced feelings like disgust, anger, sadness, as well as a separate survey to establish their “general aesthetic interest for literature, art, cinema, design, food, and nature.” The latter was a way to understand if a lower interest in aesthetics would affect how someone felt about art or landscape (e.g. if they might have less of a sublime reaction).

After establishing each participant’s base-line aesthetic taste and emotions, the team strapped them into VR headsets to experience 360 immersive video experiences of both Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and a true French starry night.

Following their experience in VR, the participants were surveyed again on what kind of emotions they experienced when looking at these different scenes.

To contrast Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the team showed participants this real starry night from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence — the french town that inspired Van Gogh.

Alice Chirico

What they discovered — After comparing the emotional response the participants gave for viewing each different landscape, the team noticed a number of similarities — as well as some crucial differences.

The team reported across the board that participants experienced a sublime-like experience when viewing these environments with VR — suggesting that VR is an effective tool to evoke these experiences, even from the safety of your home.

However, when looking more deeply at the responses, they noticed that the sublime feeling evoked by both mediums was different. Participants reported feeling a greater sense of vastness and a greater perception of existential danger when watching the naturalistic landscape video than when experiencing “Starry Night.”

The researchers can’t yet say why this is, but they write that it’s good evidence that the sublime can transcend different personalities or backgrounds — making it a nearly universal human experience.

“The sublime might be a matter of context and stimulus more than of predisposition or tendencies, since specific emotion dispositions and personal desire for aesthetic dimensions did not impact on the sublime experience after nature and art exposure,” write the authors.

What’s next — There are still a few compounding factors to disentangle from this research (for example, every participant was already familiar with “Starry Night”) but the research team writes that they’re optimistic about the role VR will play in continuing to understand these emotions.

“We expect technologies to continue to create ever more immersive experiences, providing new opportunities to investigate the centuries-old and still on-going philosophical and psychological discourses on the sublime,” write the authors.

This story was updated on March 18th to include an original comment from the author of the study.

Abstract: The sublime–the mixed aesthetic experience of uplift and elevation in response to a powerful or vast object that otherwise is experienced as menacing–has nurtured philosophical discourse for centuries. One of the major philosophical issues concerns whether the sublime is best thought of as a subjective response or as a stimulus. Recently, psychology has conceived of the sublime as an emotion, often referred to as awe, arising from natural or artistic stimuli that are great, rare, and/or vast. However, it has not yet been empirically demonstrated whether two major elicitors of the sublime–nature and art–differ in inducing this state. In order to experimentally compare nature and art, we exposed 50 participants to sublimity-inducing content in two different formats (nature-based and art-based) using 360˚ videos. We compared Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night with a photorealistic version of the actual place depicted in the painting, Saint-Re´my-de-Provence. We measured participants’ emotional responses before and after each exposure, as well as the sense of presence. The nature-based format induced higher intensity emotional responses than the art-based format. This study compares different sublime stimuli (nature vs. art) for eliciting the sublime.

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