Barnett Newman famously spent his career chasing the sublime, a sensation defined by Merriam-Webster as one “tending to inspire awe.” He wanted his “zip” paintings to embody this aesthetic experience and impart it to viewers. Standing before one of his enormous works today, it’s easy to feel the wonder with which he infused the act of painting.
But, as it turns out, contemplating Newman’s paintings might not just offer psychological benefits, but also physical ones. A new study called “Positive Affect and Markers of Inflammation: Discrete Positive Emotions Predict Lower Levels of Inflammatory Cytokines,” published in the journal Emotion, found that activities that inspire awe may actually boost the immune system.
Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley reached this conclusion through experiments involving 200 young adults. First, they asked participants about their day — what they did, how they felt about it, and what types of emotions they’d experienced. Afterwards, they took samples of gum and cheek tissue and tested their levels of cytokines, proteins that cause inflammation when they perceive a threat (basically warning the immune system to start working harder). A strong presence usually means the body is fighting off an infection or disease, while extremely high amounts go hand-in-hand with type-2 diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Cytokines have also been tied to depression, as they’re thought to block important mood-controlling hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
The researchers found that people who reported having positive emotions — specifically awe — had some of the lowest levels of cytokines. In a statement, lead author Jennifer Stellar explained that the feeling of awe is crucial because it’s “associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation, where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment.” The study’s results suggest that activities which induce such feelings (like taking in a Barnett Newman painting) might be just as salubrious as hitting the gym.
“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions — a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art — has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” UC Berkeley psychologist and co-author Dacher Keltner said.
Of course, there are caveats. The sample size is small, and as the researchers themselves admit, it’s possible that having lower levels of cytokines makes people feel happier, and not the other way around. But it’s still intriguing to consider the possibility that a regular dose of art might physically impact our bodies for the better. It seems good ol’ Newman may have been on to something.
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