With a paper by Freedberg and Gallese, to be published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, mirror neurons have made their way into neuroaesthetics (at some point, someone like Gallese will publish a paper arguing that mirror neurons explain everything, and we’ll begin to wonder what the hell the rest of the brain is for). Here’s the abstract from the paper1:
The implications of the discovery of mirroring mechanisms and embodied simulation for empathetic responses to images in general, and to works of visual art in particular, have not yet been assessed. Here, we address this issue and we challenge the primacy of cognition in responses to art. We propose that a crucial element of esthetic response consists of the activation of embodied mechanisms encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions and corporeal sensation, and that these mechanisms are universal. This basic level of reaction to images is essential to understanding the effectiveness both of everyday images and of works of art. Historical, cultural and other contextual factors do not preclude the importance of considering the neural processes that arise in the empathetic understanding of visual artworks.
It’s a good thing that they’re challenging “the primacy of cognition in response to art,” because God knows those other neuroaesthetic theories were heavy on the cognition and light on the sensory-motor aspects of aesthetic experience (cough, cough). Is it just me, or do the embodied/simulation people have serious persecution complexes? Anyway, I offer this without further comment.
OK, I tried, but I can’t resist one more comment. One of the main arguments in the paper relies on research on the representation of pain. The basic idea is this. When we see a piece of visual art like, say, this one (they use a different drawing from the “Disasters of War” series, but I like this one damnit!):
According to Freedman and Gallese, the way we represent the pain that poor sap being stabbed by a spear is experiencing is by simulating the sensory-motor experience of pain in our own brains. As evidence for this view, they cite a couple papers (actually, they don’t cite them, they refer to another paper by Gallese in which he cites them, which is… I’m just not going to say anything) that both describe similar findings. For example, Singer et al.2 describe a study in which they measured individuals’ brain activity during a painful experience, and again while those individuals watched a loved one undergo the same experience. Singer et al. found overlapping activation during both imaging sessions, but not in the areas associated with feeling pain. Instead, the overlaps occurred in the areas associated with the emotions that the painful experience caused. In other words, Singer et al.’s study produced the revolutionary finding that empathy is feeling the emotions that others are (likely) feeling! Wow. But, umm… that’s not what the simulation theory would predict. The simulation theory would predict that in addition to having the same emotions when experiencing or witnessing pain, we should also “simulate” the pain in the same regions where we experience pain. But Singer et al. didn’t find that. Hell, the title of the Singer et al. paper is “Empathy for pain involves the affective but not the sensory components of pain” (my emphasis). So why would Freedman and Gallese use their results to argue for a simulation theory of aesthetics? I dare not speculate.
1Freedman, D., & Gallese, V. (In Press). Motion, emotion and empathy in esthetic experience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
2Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., Kaube, H., Dolan, R.J>, & Frith, C.D. (2004). Empathy for pain involves the affective but not the sensory components of pain. Science, 303, 1157-1162.