I recently experienced a confluence of reminders that not all experiences with arts and culture result in positive responses people anticipated. I am not talking about works of poor quality or offensive works. Friend of the blog Carter Gillies sent me a link to a National Institute of Health case study on Stendhal syndrome where people have averse reactions to cultural overload.
In this particular case, a man visited Florence, Italy and
…he experienced a panic attack and was also observed to have become disorientated in time. This lasted several minutes and was followed by florid persecutory ideation, involving him being monitored by international airlines, the bugging of his hotel room and multiple ideas of reference. These symptoms resolved gradually over the following 3 weeks.
Four years later, he revisited southern France, this time with no intention of returning to Florence. However, visiting this area reminded him of his trip to Florence and triggered another panic attack followed by persecutory beliefs, again involving monitoring by the airlines and which settled within a few days.
Prior to this I had heard of Paris Syndrome which is a similar experience, but seems to be particularly associated with Japanese visitors to Paris. I was likewise aware of Jerusalem Syndrome in which people have religious oriented obsessions when visiting that city.
In the process of reading about Stendhal syndrome, I came across Lisztomania which was an actual thing 200 years ago and not a catchy song politicians video taped themselves dancing to while in college. (As I said, it was strange coincidence to be planning to write about it and then see the song title pop up in the news related to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)
Lisztomania is described an hysterical reaction people had to listening to Liszt perform. If you read the Wikipedia article on it, people have gone to lengths to differentiate it from Beatlemania by noting that Lisztomania was seen to be more of a medical condition and considered contagious. Take from that what you want, but it is interesting to read the entry and the various implications people of the time made about their respective constitutions enabling them to resist the “disease.”
Finally, I wanted to point out an NPR story I heard on New Year’s Eve about the horror people feel when they experience the impulse to crush and destroy cute things. People studying this situation basically say it is the brain’s attempt to keep us from being overwhelmed by our reaction to cuteness.
The study found that for the entire group of participants, cuter creatures were associated with greater activity in brain areas involved in emotion. But the more cute aggression a person felt, the more activity the scientists saw in the brain’s reward system.
That suggests people who think about squishing puppies appear to be driven by two powerful forces in the brain. “It’s not just reward and it’s not just emotion,” Stavropoulos says. “Both systems in the brain are involved in this experience of cute aggression.”
The combination can be overwhelming. And scientists suspect that’s why the brain starts producing aggressive thoughts. The idea is that the appearance of these negative emotions helps people get control of the positive ones running amok.
With all these stories coming to me in a short period of time and seeing the commonalities, it occurred to me that people in the arts and culture industry need to be mindful that experiences we provide can be overwhelming. People with a long history of interactions with culture aren’t immune and perhaps aren’t any better suited to dealing with the feelings they experience. Deciding it is logically impossible that you are unable to process a negative reaction given your experience and expertise may create no less anxiety than for someone who is having their first interaction and is at a loss to understand what they are feeling.
NB – Meant to include the following learning points from the NIH case study near the end of the post:
- It is well known that adverse life events can detrimentally affect mental health, but it is less appreciated that intense experiences, that would otherwise be considered positive, can have similar effects.
- It seems that “pilgrimages,” be they religious or artistic, are particularly likely to induce such psychological reactions.
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