The Body in Aesthetic Experience: A Neuroscientific Perspective

23 Feb 2012
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Vittorio Gallese
University of Parma & IIT (Italian Institute of Technology) Brain Center for Social and Motor Cognition

The discovery of mirror neurons and of a variety of mirroring mechanism in our brain show that the same neural structures activated by the actual execution of actions or by the subjective experience of emotions and sensations are also active when we see others acting or expressing the same emotions and sensations. These mirroring mechanism have been interpreted as constituting a basic functional mechanism in social cognition, defined embodied simulation (ES). Freedberg and Gallese (2007) proposed that a fundamental element of aesthetic response to works of art consists of the activation of embodied mechanisms encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions, and corporeal sensations.

Mirror mechanisms are just one instantiation of ES, where the simulation process is triggered by a perception. Indeed, ES also occurs when we imagine doing or perceiving something. Motor and visual mental imagery do qualify as further forms of ES, since they imply re-using our motor or visual neural apparatus to imagine things and situations we are not actually doing or perceiving. The border between real and fictional worlds is thus more blurred than one would expect. These findings open interesting scenarios for an embodied approach to art. ES can be relevant to aesthetic experience in at least two ways: First, because of the bodily feelings triggered by art works with whom we identify by means of the mirroring mechanisms they evoke. In such a way, ES generates the peculiar seeing-as that plays a crucial role in our aesthetic experience. Second, because of the bodily memories and imaginative associations that art works can awake in beholdersʼminds.

There is a further aspect characterizing ES when driven by our immersion into the fictional worlds of art. In aesthetic experience we can temporarily suspend our grip on the world. We liberate new energies and put them into the service of a new dimension that, paradoxically, can be more vivid than prosaic reality. Aesthetic experience of art works, beside being a cognitive suspension of disbelief, can be thus interpreted as a sort of “liberated ES”. When looking at a visual work of art, reading a novel, or attending to a theatrical play or to a movie, our ES becomes liberated, that is, it is freed from the burden of modeling our actual presence in the “real” world. We look at art from a distance of safety from which our being open to the world is magnified. A similar perspective can be applied to the creative process of the artist. The artwork becomes the mediator of the sensory-motor and emotional resonance that establishes between the artist and the beholder, thus allowing the latter to feel the artwork in an embodied manner. Liberated ES hence provides a potentially unified level of description of both artistʼs and beholdersʼ relation with the art work. In a sense, to appreciate art means leaving the world behind in order to more fully grasp it.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Berkeley Program in Science and Technology Studies • Office for the History of Science and Technology
Office for the History of Science and Technology

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