Posted by Jack on October 4th, 2008 filed in About Ann

A week or so ago while on a boating trip to the ever-pleasant nearby city of Victoria in British Columbia, Ann was reading the local newspaper over her breakfast latte and croissant.  She spotted an interesting headline, to wit: “Looking at a Beautiful Painting Distracts from Pain, Study Reveals”.  Like most reasonable people, Ann has learned to be acutely skeptical of studies that purport to declare that either consuming or abstaining from some food or drink or another will perhaps deliver rejuvenating health benefits or likely lead one to an early and painful death.  “Study shows: Drinking avocado oil prevents post-nasal drip!”   “Study proves: Eating anchovies increases risk of bunions!”

We know, don’t we, that these pronouncements are almost certain to be followed in weeks or months with new items in the health and science pages of the same newspaper reporting on a study statistically proving exactly the opposite.  Skepticism is warranted, advised, actually essential, except (and this is most important) for those cases wherein the study recommends health benefits accruing from conspicuous and enthusiastic consumption of red wine, chocolate and/or wild salmon.  In these enlightened instances, acceptance, support and even evangelical spreading of the word are recommended.

This article (in the Vancouver Sun, September 19) recommending the anesthetic benefits of viewing beautiful paintings clearly stands resolutely on the red wine-chocolate-salmon side of the equation.  This is something that we can readily accept since it seems so obvious that you wonder why there may have been any question about the matter, what doubt would have required a study.  At any event, the news article deserved close attention.

The story, with a London dateline and attribution to the Daily Telegraph, begins with a nice idea: “Looking at a beautiful piece of art has long been said to have the power to heal emotional wounds but research also claims that it offers a distraction from physical pain.”  It tells us that the research was conducted at the Neurophysiopathology Pain Unit of the University of Bari in Italy.  That, my friends, is nine-syllable science!  The study protocol involved asking the subjects to pick the 20 paintings they considered most ugly and most beautiful from a selection of 200 images.   They were then asked to contemplate alternately the beautiful, the ugly and a blank canvas while the techies in white lab coats zapped their hands with a short laser pulse, simulating a pin-prick.  This bit of scientific research delivered to the accumulated body of human knowledge the wisdom that pain is one third less intense while viewing fine and beautiful paintings.

So long ibuprofin.  Bye-bye Bayer.  Stop worrying about those little arthritic pings now affecting boomers.  Hang upon every wall in your house Boticellis, Vermers, Turners, Monets.  Even an Ann Walbert or two.   This study will certainly give hospital Boards who have spent hard-earned dollars on decor, art and flora a scientifically-proven justification for their largesse.  Perhaps viewing art does ease pain.  Perhaps not.  Either way, it is an essential part of a well-realized life.  It really is okay to view and contemplate fine and beautiful paintings even though you might not be in immediate pain.

Certainly we always knew that.  Still, it is comforting to have science on our side.  Worth all the bother of a cruise to Victoria.


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