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Why are psychologists watching disturbing video art?

A few years ago while watching Paul McCarthy's video Painter (1995) at Ballroom Marfa, Texas, an artist friend murmured to me, 'This stuff makes me feel a bit sick.' Yes, me too. Before she said that, I probably would have felt obliged to use some sort of detached aesthetic terminology to express my response. But 'a bit sick' is better, not only because it's honest, but also because, as we now know, you can take the same thing for disturbing video art that you take for a cold: paracetamol.

In 2013, three psychologists from the University of British Columbia published a study with the amazing (and very group-show-appropriable) title 'The Common Pain of Surrealism and Death: Acetaminophen Reduces Compensatory Affirmation Following Meaning Threats'. A meaning threat, in psychology, is an experience that jars your expectations or your sense of yourself. Previous studies have shown two interesting things about meaning threats. (Since last year's 'replication crisis', when a meta-study found a huge proportion of psychology lab research to be pretty doubtful, we must respond less creduously to the phrase 'a study has shown'; but for the purposes of this column, all psychological studies are true.)

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David Lynch, Lost Highway, 1997, film still. Courtesy: Asymmetrical Productions

David Lynch, Lost Highway, 1997, film still. Courtesy: Asymmetrical Productions

The first interesting thing about meaning threats is that, after enduring one, people try to compensate by reaffirming some sort of dependable meaning somewhere else in their world. For instance, in another study with a great title, 'The Case of the Transmogrifying Experimenter', the woman giving the subjects the questionnaire was replaced half-way through by a different woman wearing the same outfit. Most of the subjects didn't consciously notice the swap, but afterwards they tended to set a higher bail for a prostitute in an imaginary courtroom scenario, as if on some deep level they were unsettled by the visual anomaly and looking for order and authority to cling to.

The second interesting thing about meaning threats is that you can soothe them with painkillers, just like physical pain. For instance, social rejection can be regarded as a type of meaning threat; and another study has shown that, if you leave someone out of a ball game, they won't be as upset about it if they've taken paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen.

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David Lynch, Rabbits, 2002, film still. 

David Lynch, Rabbits, 2002, film still. 

In 'The Common Pain of Surrealism and Death', the psychologists from the University of British Columbia decided to apply these findings to yet another type of meaning threat: the avant-garde. They showed some of their subjects a four-minute clip from David Lynch's 'sitcom' Rabbits (2002). Now, Lynch fans will already have noticed that the aforementioned 'transmogrifying experimenter' is quite reminiscent of Lost Highway (1997), in which the protagonist is first played by Bill Pullman and then by Balthazar Getty. So I emailed Steve Heine, the psychologist involved in both of the studies, to ask him about this.

'You know, I think Lost Highway is the only Lynch movie that I haven’t seen,' he replied. He told me that he used Rabbits and the 'transmogrifying experimenter' trick because he 'had good theoretical reasons from a lot of psychological research to expect they should elicit the same unconscious feeling,' whereas 'Lynch seemed to intuitively know that on his own.' So Heine isn't deliberately working his way through Lynch's filmography in a clinical setting, but I still can't help hoping his next paper is as loaded with Twin Peaks references as an art pop band's Tumblr.

In the 'Surrealism and Death' study, the subjects were given another imaginary courtroom scenario, in which they were asked to set the fines for rioters convicted of vandalism after a hockey match. The ones who'd watched four minutes of Rabbits tended to slap on higher fines. Unless they'd taken paracetamol, in which case they didn't.

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Marianna Simnett, Blue Roses, 2015, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Comar and Seventeen Gallery, London

Marianna Simnett, Blue Roses, 2015, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Comar and Seventeen Gallery, London

What are we to make of these results? At first sight, they seem to suggest that people who consume a lot of disorienting video will end up more right-wing. But that doesn't sound plausible. For instance, I have seen few works of video art more captivating in their strangeness than Marianna Simnett's bionic nightmare-cantata Blue Roses (2015), but in the conversations I had at the opening of her show at Seventeen Gallery, London, recently, I did not detect an undertone of draconian social conservatism. In fact, a previous study, which used a Monty Python sketch for its meaning threat, found that people don't engage in compensatory affirmation when they've been warned in advance that they're about to see something surreal. In other words, the video art lovers don't get any heebie-jeebies from it, because they already know what they're getting into.

Recent neuroscience suggests that meaning threats activate the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), a hook-shaped area near the front of the brain. As well as surrealism and transmogrifying experimenters and social rejection, the dACC responds to contemplation of morality and physical pain. It's been characterized as a general alarm system for errors, conflicts and discrepancies. This doesn't mean that watching David Lynch is neurologically the same as getting a headache. But there is some sort of overlap, which is why paracetamol helps with all of the above.

Artists sometimes complain that the market has no appetite for genuinely experimental or challenging work. But imagine if, before the arrival of a collector on a studio visit, you could spike their latte with an undetectable aesthetic tranquiliser. Imagine if you could do the same to every glass of champagne at the opening of an art fair. Perhaps the art market would become suddenly fearless.

One might argue that this would betray the work. For a lot of artists, keeping collectors comfortable is not exactly the top priority. Part of the point of Painter or Rabbits is to produce an involuntary reaction. Art moves us in many different ways; confusion and dread are profound emotions just like rapture and pity.

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Paul McCarthy, Painter, 1995, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London / New York / Zurich © Paul McCarthy 

Paul McCarthy, Painter, 1995, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London / New York / Zurich © Paul McCarthy 

But if those emotions are integral to the work in some cases, perhaps they're a mere distraction in others. If you knew that your audience was dosed on paracetamol, you could count on them to appreciate even your most eldritch and fractured work in precise formalist terms, their responses unmuddied by primitive instincts from our evolutionary past.

Indeed, paracetamol abuse could spur artists to new extremes. When clubbers started taking ketamine, what followed was music even more cavernous and static than existing techno. Tomorrow's young gallery-goers, their limbic lobes numbed by swigs of calpol sizzurp, might demand ever more intense meaning threats, just to feel something. If a dACC-inhibitor even more potent than paracetamol is ever discovered, a sort of Modernist Singularity might follow, with art advancing on an unchecked exponential curve until we have revolutions and paradigm shifts on a weekly basis.

I tried taking a paracetamol myself before watching Painter on YouTube. I couldn't tell if it affected me any differently this time, and also I didn't make it all the way through the video, and also I have not yet been empowered to decide the fate of prostitutes or rioters (which is a shame because I would do an incredibly astute, Solomon-like job of it). So perhaps my little experiment would not pass peer review. But the next time I see some sickening art, I will be conscious that I am making a choice not to smooth out my response. Instead, like a woman in labour refusing an epidural, I will grit my teeth through the meaning threats, because that is the natural way.

Ned Beauman is a novelist based in London. His most recent book, Glow, was published in 2014. www.nedbeauman.co.uk

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