Have you ever been to an art museum? If you have, you know that there are many amazing, beautiful works of art that have been created over the history of human life that are awe-inspiring. But, while viewing these masterpieces, have you ever experienced the following symptoms: rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion, and hallucinations? If so, you may have experienced a very rarely documented psychological condition that has been identified to exist dating back to 1817! While many mental health professionals are skeptical about the true nature of this supposed disorder, there have been people who have reported experiencing it for centuries.
The first time Stendhal Syndrome was discussed was in 1817 when a French author, Marie-Henri Beyle (who’s penname for writing was Stendhal) wrote and described what he was experiencing when seeing beautiful and meaningful objects. He wrote that when he visited the Basilicia of Santa Croce (the burial site of Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, and Niccolò Machiavelli) he became overcome with profound emotion that involved feeling elated, but anxious at the same time. The symptoms described of Stendhal Syndrome are all indicators of someone experiencing a severe panic attack. While it’s possible that Stendhal may have been experiencing anxiety or a panic attack at the time of viewing that was unrelated to the art itself, since that time, many people have reported experiencing a similar phenomenon when being exposed to artistic or historical objects.
Studies have shown that people have met the criteria of panic and hallucinations or paranoia without a history of these kinds of symptoms following their trips to witness culturally significant artistic places and thing. One study discussed a case of Brazilian neurosurgeon, Amâncio’s, stating that a Russian novelist he was treating was reporting symptoms of Stendhal Syndrome. In addition to this, the same study wrote about a 72-year-old man who experienced paranoid psychosis following a trip to Florence, Italy’s Ponte Veccio Bridge. Following this experience, this man was said to experience disorientation and “florid persecutory ideation”, or believing that there were being surveilling him, bugging his room, and believing that those working for the airlines were trying to harm him. In addition to this, two of psychology’s founding fathers, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud themselves indicated that they have experienced intense emotional reactions to viewing artwork.
Although many have documented similar symptoms and experiences following the very specific event of being exposed to cultural and historical artifacts, psychologists and researchers are wary of determining that these symptoms meet the criteria of a mental health disorder. It is speculated that the reason for this is because the criteria for confirmation of a “disorder” states that the symptoms cannot be better understood as a result of the person’s “sociocultural environment”. Basically, this means that having an psychological experience because of the cultural significance of the environment cannot be categorized as a complete mental health condition.
So, are you among some of the rare few that have experienced these unexpected symptoms? While very rare and highly unlikely, if you have experienced a sense of overwhelm or even paranoia or hallucinations after viewing beautiful and inspiring works of art and history, a mental health professional could help you to work through what happened and help you to understand ways to cope and improve your life. So much needs to be discovered about these symptoms and their root causes before psychologists and researchers can come to conclusions, but it is a fascinating phenomenon that the mental health world needs to fully investigate.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events