Ugly and Pretty Paintings, and Laser Beams, and Swearing

Prior to 2008 no one knew, at all precisely, the pain people suffer when they gaze at an ugly painting – relative to what they’d feel if they were looking at a pretty picture – while a stranger shoots them in the back of the hand with a powerful laser beam. Now something is known about the subject. The knowledge is preserved in a study called Aesthetic Value of Paintings Affects Pain Thresholds.

The study’s authors, Marina de Tommaso, Michele Sardaro and Paolo Livrea at the University of Bari in Italy, had 12 people each identify paintings as beautiful or ugly, then stare at some of each kind while a laser heated into the dorsal surface of their hand. Each volunteer, after each viewing, rated the pain on a scale of zero to 100. The hurt was a little worse when they looked at ugly art, they said, mostly.

This manner of inflicting pain – applying a carefully aimed column of light amplified by stimulated emission of radiation (that’s the phrase, more or less, that gives us the cool, five-letter word “laser”), is not the only possible way….

—So begins this month’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.