10:32 GMT29 October 2020
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    Scientists at Moscow State University of Psychology and Education (MSUPE) have analysed the psychological structure of catharsis and identified its varieties, based on various psychological mechanisms.

    According to the researchers, the study can make a significant contribution to the psychology of art and be used in psychological counselling using artwork to generate a perceptual experience.

    According to the researchers, the study can make a significant contribution to the psychology of art and be used in psychological counselling using artwork to generate a perceptual experience.

    The study results were published in Cultural-Historical Psychology magazine.

    On the Way to Self-Renewal

    The catharsis phenomenon has been known since the times of Aristotle (384-322 BC). However, its psycho-technical significance remains under-characterised. Traditionally, the concept of catharsis is interpreted as the effect of contemplating an artwork associated with the purification of the soul.

    The MSUPE researchers aimed at analysing the psychological structure and psycho-technical significance of catharsis. According to scientists, the study is novel in that it identifies functionally different types of catharsis. The study used Vygotsky's ideas in the field of aesthetic experience analysis.

    The MSUPE researchers are convinced that identification of such types based on various psychological mechanisms may turn out to be a significant contribution to the psychology of art, as well as be used in art therapy and art pedagogy.

    The experts have identified the phases of excitement (pathos), concentration ("merging" with the character) and transcending ("going beyond oneself") in the structure of catharsis. The catharsis ends with the "return to oneself", that is, reflexive self-renewal as a result of aesthetic experience.

    A psychological analysis of the catharsis structure is intended to answer the question of why this final transition is possible: the transition from contact with another, possibly with the Absolute, to finding a new, complicated essence within yourself. The MSUPE researchers believe that acts of reflection play a paramount role here.

    Catharsis: Interruption and Return

    Based on the identified stages of catharsis and data from art studies, MSUPE scientists have analysed the structure of cathartic perception of the works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, which are described in detail in art history literature.

    "In the professional environment, it’s generally accepted that Caravaggio assigns the viewer the role of an accidental witness, forcing them to sympathise and worry for the character during times of emotional extremes, resulting in the viewer feeling awkward and even guilty, since they seemed to see what wasn’t intended for them", Dmitry Lubovsky, professor at the Department of Educational Psychology at the Faculty of Psychology of Education of MSUPE, explained.

    According to the authors of the study, the creation of this awkwardness is a technique that interrupts the catharsis, that is, there is no reflective completion. The authors of the study suggest calling this kind of cathartic experience with an interruption at the peak of emotional contact with the artwork the "catharsis of pathos".

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    As Marina Ermolaeva, professor of the Department of Pedagogical Psychology at MSUPE, pointed out, Rembrandt's works are not characterised by affectation: the most powerful emotions are not expressed by facial expressions and are experienced in silence. His characters don't show strong feelings, but his images produce a cascade of feelings and meanings in the viewer themselves.

    The meeting of the character-author and the viewer in Rembrandt's paintings gives rise to inner contemplation. The MSUPE researchers believe that the author’s style, which with little emotion presents a person's life path and a system of their life meanings, promotes the viewer's self-renewal and makes it possible to identify another kind of aesthetic experience, "reflexive catharsis".

    Russia, Moscow State University of Psychology and Education (MSUPE), psychologists, psychology
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