Veronika Szendro is a PhD student from the University of Pécs. She spent nearly the whole of October 2023 in Brno preparing and working on her experiments that combine art, psychology, and neuroscience. Veronica was one of the six lucky winners of a call to access research infrastructures at EDUC universities funded by the EDUC-SHARE project.
What is your research about?
The aim of my research is to understand the effect of the perception of specific visual patterns of Buddhist mandalas on brain activity. Knowledge about the calming effects of mandalas dates back centuries. In Buddhist rituals, both the making and observing of mandalas were part of the meditation ritual. This research aims to understand better the visual elements that can contribute to this calming effect.
How did you get to it?
During my undergraduate studies as a visual artist, I was interested in the relationship between religions and contemporary art. In 2020, I started my doctoral studies at the University of Pécs, aiming to deepen my theoretical knowledge in the field. In 2022, I was awarded a scholarship to Yale University Divinity School for one semester. There I found an interesting article about Carl Gustav Jung's mandala depictions and its supposed unconscious roots. I was intrigued by Jung's ideas and wanted to understand more about the particular ways mandalas are depicted and the reasons for their creation and development throughout history.
What exactly will you study and what do you want to verify in your research?
My research hypothesis is that observing certain visual features contributes to developing a meditative brain state and increasing alpha waves. As previous research has shown, alpha waves increase during meditation. However, these experiments focused on meditative practices. My research aims to understand whether sensory stimuli can also trigger this brain state. This idea is not entirely unique; a study published in 2019 confirmed that certain audio stimuli can trigger alpha waves. I focus on visual patterns based on mandalas.
When did the first mandalas appear? Are mandalas also part of modern art?
There is no generally accepted date when the first artworks considered 'mandalas' were created. Interestingly, researchers in central India have found ritual relics from 9000 BC that show similar visual patterns to Buddhist depictions.
The first works of art called 'mandalas', were made in India around the 7th century. The images were spread by monks travelling to Tibet and Japan, who recreated them with similar visual characteristics. Although Jung's research on mandalas is not scientifically proven, he influenced the spread of Buddhist imagery in Western culture. In the 1960s, the visual characteristics of mandalas appeared frequently in the artwork of hippies. In contemporary art, many artists use visual patterns of mandalas in their work.
How does your research connect the natural sciences with the social sciences?
My research hypothesis came from the humanities, but to prove my hypothesis, I had to incorporate the methodology of the natural sciences. Investigating the cognitive effects of mandalas without experimental tools would give too subjective results. Of course, we also ask subjects to fill out questionnaires in addition to EEG measurements. This helps to link brainwave data with the subjects' individual experiences.
What research infrastructures do you use in Brno for your research and how?
I use the HUME Lab's EEG device and software, which allows me to detect the subjects' brainwaves in real-time while they are perceiving the experimental and control images. Collected data is then analysed by the MAFIL Core Facility at CEITEC.
Who are the contributors to this research project?
My supervisors at the University of Pécs are Péter Lengyel, artist and dean of the Art Department and Attila Sik, neurobiologist, and founder of the Institute of Transdisciplinary Discoveries. In addition, I received much help in developing my research hypothesis from Bálint Veres, aesthete, and Frederick J. Lamp, former art historian at Yale University.
At Masaryk University, I cooperate with Eva Kundtová Klocová from the HUME Lab at the Faculty of Arts, Martina Lamoš and Martin Kojan from the MAFIL Core Facility at CEITEC.
Veronika Szendro has a master’s degree in visual art from the University of Pécs, Hungary. She participated in a programme at Yale University. Currently, she is a PhD student at the University of Pécs.
Hume Lab, Credit: Veronica Szendro
Kalachakra mandala, 16th century, Credit: https://www.himalayanart.org/items/31850