This project has received funding from the European
Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon
2020 research and innovation programme.
Grant agreement No. 834033 AN-ICON.

2022 Presence


Sala Martinetti


Towards a Science of Complex Experiences

Alice Chirico

Complexity has been always a part of an individual’s life under different guises. However, it has always been hard to provide a clear definition of what complexity really is. For instance, in the field of science, complexity can concern systems progressively emerging multiple interactions among different components given perturbations and following basic rules. This definition, as well as the concept of a system, can also be applied to human experience, whose unfolding takes place through the interactions of specific cognitive, perceptual, and emotional components bringing forth peculiar phenomena, which we labeled as “complex experiences.” At the ExperienceLab, we sought to investigate specific complex experiences ranging from the emotional to the cognitive domain, as well as their intersections. Sublime, awe, elevation are types of complex emotional experiences, and they can stem from something able to challenge our accustomed mental schema. This can be either natural as well as artificial, and Virtual Reality (VR) proved a key medium to pursue this goal in a controlled setting, such as the lab. On the one hand, VR allows manipulating individual’s body perception and memory thanks to the embodiment with a virtual body. On the other hand, VR acts an effective tool for eliciting complex emotional states in an ecological way. A series of study on the potential of VR for studying complex experience is presented.

Assistant Professor (M-PSI/01, ssd E11-1) at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan (Italy), Co-Director of the Experience Lab. Lecturer of the course “Psychotechnologies for wellbeing”. Advanced researcher (from 2015) at the Applied Technology for Neuropsychology lab (Istituto Auxologico Italiano, Milan, Italy). Chartered Psychologist (N. 7990) and professional singer. Honoree for the “Best Student Experience” at Proto Wards 2016 Los Angeles (USA) with a project entitled “Body-Swapping: creating the illusion of the embodiment using Virtual Reality”. In 2019, winner of the international award “Prize for Mental Health Applications and Ideas” sponsored by the European Alliance of Innovation. Main research topics concern complex experiences (e.g., the sublime, awe, flow experience, group creativity) as elicited by art (especially, by music) and Virtual Reality (VR). Currently, Co-PI of PROMETHEUS Porject, a national funded Grant on the role of awe for promoting inspiration to learn in students at risk of school dropout through the theater (2020-2022). In 2021, she published her first Italian book on awe and the sublime (Publisher: San Paolo Press), and she is currently Editing a book on Complex Experiences and Depression, and she is writing a book on the psychological profile of Salvador Dalì (Publisher: Outofnowhere and Repubblica National Magazine).