Mixing Memory

The Simulation Theory of Aesthetics

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.


  1. #1 The Neurocritic
    March 18, 2007

    Now here’s a paper you’ll love: mirror neurons and Lakoff. Together!

    Gallese, V. & Lakoff, G. (2005). The brain’s concepts: the role of the sensory-motor system in conceptual knowledge. Cog. Neuropsych. 22: 455-479.

    They basically say that all of semantic knowledge and language comprehension are based entirely on sensorimotor representations.

  2. #2 Chris
    March 18, 2007

    yeah, i read that back when. i can’t post on it, because i don’t want to cuss every other sentence.

  3. #3 Dr X
    March 21, 2007

    Nice job exposing the problems with claiming the aesthetic experience arises from simulating the sensory-motor experience, but aside from the huge problem you point out, why did the author assume that the sensory-motor simulation would revolve around the pain the stabee is experiencing? What about the stabbing motion of the guy with the spear? Just the analyst in me speaking here, but on an affective level why not an affective experience of aggression or sadism arising from sensory-motor simulation of the stabbing motion if one is asserting that some automatic simulation in the relevant sensory-motor region occurs when looking at this static image?

    It all starts to seem even more silly when you think about it that way because the simulation of a stabbing motion seems so remote from the affective experience of sadism.

  4. #4 IminURblogfeelnURpayn
    March 24, 2007

    For a study that forces an elaboration of simulation theories of empathy for pain, see Avenanti et al.’s, “Transcranial magnetic stimulation highlights the sensorimotor side of empathy for pain,” 2005 in Nature Neuroscience.

  5. #5 Doug
    March 25, 2007

    I’m trying to extract any meaningful information from your review of this paper. I see an ad hominem attack, an ellipsis…

    How do you simulate pain? It isn’t an action. You don’t simulate sensations, you simulate the embodied response to the sensation. When you see a guy get kicked in the nuts, for example, you cringe. Your nuts don’t start hurting, as you are suggesting the simulation theory “would predict.”

  6. #6 AmE
    September 10, 2011

    Doug, the ad hominem arguments are asides. Also if simulation theory were just to propose we have reactions to stimuli how is that different from any other epistemic or affective theory? It only makes sense for simulation theory to have a classification if it did indeed proposes the notion that we do indeed experience those sensations simulatorily. Personally, simulation theory seems like a philosophic notion that has weakening scientific justification.