The research carried out by the University of Bari in Italy could help vindicate hospitals who are accused of wasting money on art and decor as it suggests a pleasant environment helps patients overcome discomfort and pain.
Works by Vincent Van Gogh, such as Starry Night [left] and Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus were deemed beautiful while paintings by Fernando Botero [inset] were viewed as ugly. [Agencies]
A team headed by Professor Marina de Tommaso at the Neurophysiopathology Pain Unit asked a group of men and women to pick the 20 paintings they considered most ugly and most beautiful from a selection of 300 works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli.
They were then asked to contemplate either the beautiful paintings, or the ugly painting, or a blank panel while the team zapped a short laser pulse at their hand, creating a sensation as if they had been pricked by a pin.
The subjects rated the pain as being a third less intense while they were viewing the beautiful paintings, compared with when contemplating the ugly paintings or the blank panel.
Electrodes measuring the brain's electrical activity also confirmed a reduced response to the pain when the subject looked at beautiful paintings.
While distractions, such as music, are known to reduce pain in hospital patients, Prof de Tommaso says this is the first result to show that beauty plays a part.
The findings, reported in New Scientist, also go a long way to show that beautiful surroundings could aid the healing process.
"Hospitals have been designed to be functional, but we think that their aesthetic aspects should be taken into account too," said the neurologist who published her findings in the paper Aesthetic Value of Paintings (And) Affects on Pain Thresholds.
"Beauty obviously offers a distraction that ugly paintings do not. But at least there is no suggestion that ugly surroundings make the pain worse.
"I think these results show that more research is needed into the how a beautiful environment can alleviate suffering."
Pictures they liked included Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh and Botticellis Birth of Venus. Pictures they found ugly included works by Pablo Picasso, the Italian 20th century artist Anonio Bueno and Columbian Fernando Botero.
One of the problems with the study for those wishing to reduce pain is the subjective nature of beauty.
Edvard Munch's The Scream was deemed by some people as beautiful.
"These people were not art experts so some of the pictures they found ugly would be considered masterpieces by the art world," said Prof de Tommaso.