Let’s Talk About Stendhal Syndrome

Stendhal Syndrome describes a set of hysteria-like symptoms that a person may feel when exposed to a piece of art that they deem significant or stimulating in some way.  Symptoms may include rapid heartbeat, light-headedness, and vertigo.  Somewhat like trypophobia, the fear of holes that everyone on the Internet swears they have (don’t google it, you’ll regret it), it’s a phenomenon that undoubtedly exists but isn’t considered a disorder by any official medical organization.

But it is a real phenomenon.  If you’ve ever gasped at a piece of art or described it as “breathtaking” you’ve stood at the fringe edge of a Stendhal Syndrome experience.  I’ve experienced it plenty of times, but nothing gives me the sensation more than photos of the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Like this one:

And this one:

And literally every photo on this page.

This phenomenal temple makes me dizzy.  It makes my heart race. It gives me a fluttery feeling in the… well I can only explain the location as the Sacral Chakra.  I get a sensation that’s similar to the one I get when standing in a very high location and the fear of heights kicks in.  It’s an adrenaline-fueled rush of elation and I’m simultaneously compelled to stare at it and look away.

I believe everyone has the capacity to experience Stendhal Syndrome.  If you haven’t experienced it, you haven’t yet found your special stimulus.  But it’s out there.  Humans have a universally irrational response to beauty, one that exists well outside of the bounds of pragmatic necessity.  We all have it, it’s just a matter of degrees.

I’m never more aware of my physical self, of my innate meat-ness, than when I’m looking at these photos.  That, to me, is what Stendhal Syndrome is.  It’s something that is so stimulating to the visual cortex that it overwhelms the non-corporeal space of the imagination and spills over into the physical realm, into the meat-ness of the body.  Like synesthesia or deja vu, the brain misroutes the signal and the body becomes a thinking organism from head to toe. In the throes of the physical response, the body thinks. The body sees.

I’ve never been able to tap into this sensation without exposure to a stimulus.  I simply can’t.  It’s not voluntary, it can’t be induced. But when a stimulating sight enters my visual space, the overflow into the physical space is immediate.

It’s a sensation I love.  I have a few known aesthetics or combined qualities that can trigger it, and I’ll admit that I seek them out. I enjoy the mental electric shock, the synaptic panic that momentarily turns every muscle fiber into an honorary optic nerve. It’s a flash of full-body thinking, full-body seeing.

One of the fundamental qualities that triggers it is geometrical complexity, as evidenced by the temple above.  This quality combined with dim lighting and quiet isolation create a surefire trigger.  The idea of an intricately appointed palace where no one is present to appreciate its complexity gives me that sacral chakra shiver.  Scenes like the one in Yubaba’s suite in Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant film “Spirited Away” go right to my sweet spot:

And virtually every photo of the famous House on the Rock in Wisconsin triggers the sensation.  I will be visiting the House on the Rock in May and my hope is that the visual complexity of this bizarre, overstimulating place will have me resonating in the cognitive overdrive of Stenhal Syndrome.

A good encounter with a Stendhal-inducing experience can leave my imagination vibrating like a tuning fork for days or even weeks.  And like rainwater slowly filtering through the soil to fill an aquifer, these experiences fill my creative reservoir.

In “Princess Mononoke,” another Miyazaki masterpiece, the following line appears:

I’ve come to see with eyes unclouded by hate.

I often think of this line when seeking out a Stendhall-eqsue experience.  But in my version the line is incomplete.  I’ve come to see with eyes unclouded by….. what?  Unclouded by expectations?  Unclouded by reality?  Unclouded by the security of normality?  Maybe there is no end to my version.  I’ve come to see with unclouded eyes.

That’s what I hope to do when I arrive in Wisconsin.  I hope to have an experience that I can enter with unclouded eyes.  I hope to see.  If I’m lucky, what I see will rattle my imagination and set off a physical response, and I’ll catch a hint of that tantalizing sensation of full-body thinking from head to toe.

If I can catch that hint, no matter how fleeting, the trip will have been worth it.

And if I can reach the end of my life and say “I’ve seen it all, there is no more to see,” it will have been a life well lived.

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