Ard: What is the sublime?

SZ: Give me a second and I’ll tell you. What is the sublime? The definition of it is as interesting as anything else about it: beauty from horror; awe mixed with horror. Or pleasure from displeasure, which is Kant’s definition. It is something which philosophers have considered to be entirely a construct of the mind. So you get Emmanuel Kant saying that to be able to think of infinity as a whole surpasses any standard of sense.

I mean, you cannot sense infinity, you’ve got to think about it. And during the English Enlightenment, in the 18th century, it became, sort of, the awe and the horror, and the beauty of it was seen in natural landscapes: Mont Blanc and Everest and these sea storms, and things like that.

So these were things that you could, sort of, contemplate. They were awesome and therefore beautiful, but they were also things which were terrifying. However, it’s different from the terror that you might feel if somebody were to come at you with a knife.

I was, however, expecting to see some activation in the medial orbitofrontal cortex here, with the experience of the sublime.

David: So it would be beautiful?

SZ: Yes. These experiments were very similar to the experiments on beauty, except that people looked at Mont Blanc and Everest and Mount Fuji and stuff like that.

David: Right.

SZ: And then the pattern of activity was slightly different. There was no activity here.

David: So on that picture, where was the beauty part that lit up previously?

SZ: It would be here.

David: Right. So it didn’t light up at all?

SZ: It didn’t light up at all.

David: Was that a surprise?

SZ: Yes, this was a bit of a surprise to me. I was expecting to see some activity there, but apparently not. And, in a way, the language begins to make sense, because the definition of sublimity is distinct from the definition of beauty. You see, beauty is, as Edmund Burke said: it’s small; it’s comprehensible; it’s assimilable. The Sublime is vast, it’s awesome, and it makes you feel small. It’s a very, very different experience. And they emphasise, and philosophers did, it was more a construction of the mind.

With the experience of the sublime you’ve got another system that’s active when you see something beautiful. But the big difference between the two is that there is no activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex.

David: The philosophers and the art historians will talk about the sublime and say it’s awesome and it invokes terror and it’s all very flowery, and you are tempted to think they are just making it up because they’re very clever chaps who have a lot of time on their hands.

SZ: No, no, no. I think they are not making it up. I think they are being very serious and we take them very seriously, and in fact, they are right. First of all, and this is not evident, they are really impressive in dividing sublimity from beauty. It’s a very interesting conceptual subdivision which not everybody would have made.

And secondly, this distinction finds a difference in terms of brain activity. And thirdly, yes, you’re right, there are parts of the brain which are active when fear, or at least dangerous situations are there.

David: Right.

SZ: So this is the area here which is active during the experience of beauty and shown in green. You can see there’s no red there, which means it was not active during the experience of the sublime. The experience of the sublime led to activity here which actually refers to the nucleus inside the brain. For example, this region here, the inferior medial frontal gyrus has been strongly implicated in emotional experiences, and the experience of the sublime is an emotional experience. So it is there. You’ve got also areas which are deactivated, which are not visible on this but will be visible on this.

David: So they’re supressed, you mean?

SZ: Yes, activity in them is supressed. For example, the superior frontal gyrus and then the singlet area which is here, alright?

David: And what does that say?

SZ: Well, these are areas which have been implicated in self-awareness, and they are referential with a respect to yourself, with respect to the outside world.

David: Ah, right.

SZ: Not by us, but by other people. And, and in a sense, it is interesting that they’ve been deactive. You’d get rather lost in this enormity of the experience.

David: So when you’re experiencing the sublime, the bit of your brain that says, this is me in the world, gets supressed?

SZ: I’m not sure it gets suppressed. I mean, it’s interesting that there’s deactivation in an area which is involved in a self-referential part of your brain and your position in the world. So you feel, I suppose, slightly diminished.

David: Which is, of course, exactly what people say when they talk about the sublime.

SZ: Yes, yes, yes.

David: So the map of activation and deactivation you see does actually correlate with how all these philosophers have been describing the experience.

SZ: Yes, and, I think one of the reasons why we went into the study of the sublime is because it is described, as in Kant, as an experience which transcends the standard of sense. And when you have infinity – infinity is sublime and it’s indescribable in sensory terms, in cognitive terms. So, as I say, there’s nothing here that can contradict anything the philosophers have said.