How neuroscience explains the emotions we feel in front of a work of art

We discussed it with the neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese, between empathy and mirror neurons, parallel worlds and digital reality. A long-standing relationship between art, human beings and science which will also be discussed at the Festival dei due mondi in Spoleto

A wall drawing by the exponent of conceptual art Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) at the Carandente museum in Spoleto (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Whether it’s a painting, a symphony or a film, it doesn’t matter: when we are faced with an art formas long as it’s done well, our brains and bodies react to hers communicative strength, with mechanisms that we have all experienced but that the neuroscience they are still investigating and trying to understand thoroughly.

We talked about it for Wired with Vittorio Gallese, professor of psychobiology at the University of Parma and discoverer together with colleagues of the mirror neurons, the motor cells of the brain that are fundamental to explain empathy, not only towards the gestures and actions of another person but also towards a piece of music or a work of art. Own of relationship between art and science, two apparently distant worlds but in reality united by perceptual and emotional links, Gallese will speak on Sunday 27 June in the final event of the 64th edition of Festival of the two worlds of Spoleto, within the path Art & Science into Spoleto thought by Carla Fendi Foundation per put in the mirror the artistic culture with the scientific one, starting from the works of the artists Sol LeWitt e Anna Mahler.

Vittorio Gallese, your research has focused on the neuro-biological foundation and on the brain mechanisms underlying language and aesthetics. What historical roots does the relationship between art and emotions have?

“The term art is very recent, historically definable, and more than art I would speak of parallel worlds. One of the figures of the human being is that the physical world is not enough for us: not only are we obsessed with creating and telling stories, but we have evidence of expressions of human art since we have historical testimony. The Paleolithic paintings of 25-30 thousand years ago, for example, but even further back with the findings of Blombos, near Cape Town in South Africa, with a block of ocher with geometric inscriptions dated approx 75 thousand years ago. And perhaps even more ancient are the shells found in Java, Indonesia, an expression of primitive symbolic art ”.

What is the link and the link between art and aesthetic experience, between artistic expression and neuroscience?

“The job I do, namely the cognitive scientist with a particular focus on the human mind and physiological substrates, brain and brain-body, led me to believe that a central theme to deal with is the parallel worlds and their connection with aesthetics. The very definition of aesthetics is very ancient but also very modern: aisthesis, precisely aesthetics, is the knowledge of the world through body sensitivity. The concept also applies to abstract art, to cuts of Lucio fontana or to the dynamic brushstrokes of Franz Kline, because even when we have representations and forms that have nothing to do with the human face, a inter-subjective relationship between the viewer and the artist who created it ”.

Vittorio Gallese (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In what sense can a relationship be created between user and artist?

“By simulating the gesture that produced that image. That’s what he actually said Adolf von Hildebrand already at the end of the nineteenth century: one of the most powerful things that art can do is arouse in the viewer the recreation of the very act of creation of the work. This means – and here we move from aesthetics to science – to be able to look at art from the point of view ofempathy andembodiment, that is of theincarnation. It is a theme on which I published in 2007 a study which was intended to be a map to guide subsequent research: after another 14 years of studies on figurative arts It is on cinema as an empathic screen, I am convinced it is a duty that neuroscience deals with what we commonly call art, or which more properly includes all forms of symbolic-creative expression“.

And where are we today with this neuroscientific research?

“The first decisive step was to use the same tools of neuroscience and more generally the scientific approach to tackle the issue, imagining questions and trying to answer them about art and cinema. The pioneers of this trend, like Semir Zeki, since the end of the nineties have concentrated their research activity looking for the neurological basis of two concepts that recur when it comes to art: the bello and the sublime. The areas of the brain that are activated corresponding to the beautiful and the sublime have been found, and are the same – but different from each other – regardless of whether it is a painting, of listening to a piece of music or the vision of amathematical equation.

“With my group, in particular, we focused more on the theme ofexperience, trying to combine the fruition of art with neuroscientific investigation, to understand how the sensitive experience of a painting or a film is substantiated from the point of view of the body. And it was understood that an important element of the relationship with artistic works, but also with particular objects, religious stimuli and cohesive elements of a social group, is precisely theempathy, feeling what the object transmits. However, this does not exhaust the theme of the aesthetic experience, which is a polyhedron with many faces and also includes the moment evaluative is that of judgement“.

What conclusions have been drawn?

“The most important thing is that we don’t only see with the visual part of the brain. The experience we have is something synaesthetic, of multimodal: when I look at the world or anything active both the emotional, tactile and motor parts, as well as the visual part. Vision is not just the visual part of the brain, and so is the aesthetic relationship with works of art it is not mediated only by the cognitive and linguistic part of the mind, but there is also an empathic involvement. For example, when I see the finger of St. Thomas that is inserted into the wound of Christ in a painting by Caravaggio, even if it is a static and two-dimensional representation, they are activated. tactile areas of the brain. In technical terms we speak of embodied simulation, a process that is the basis of aesthetic involvement. In short, there are conditions that create specific brain mechanisms and activations, and in this it is important not to confuse the concept of the physical world with that of the real world. Because even what is not physical can be real ”.

So, in essence, an aesthetic experience, or even a digital dimension, can become part of the real world?

“For some years we have known that the brain and body mechanisms that are activated when we are confronted with a non-physical world, but with a two-dimensional representation and even more with a virtual reality, they are very similar to those of the physical world itself. There are studies conducted at the German University of Tübingen which show that i mirror neurons in the macaque they are activated both if you grab an object and if you see the same action reproduced on the computer screen, with half of the neurons responding with the same intensity and the rest at a lower intensity. There is only one reality: that of experience. The body is one, we have experiences and these can be stimulated by the encounter with the physical world or with that of cinema or art.

“It has long been debated whether the emotions created by art are real emotions. When I see a beautiful picture, when I listen The Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, mine are hardly emotions or almost tears, but genuine emotions and tears. Often when you have aesthetic experiences you are fermi, sitting or standing, and then there is the release from the burden of being alerted by the unpredictability of the real world. L’immobility it strengthens these mechanisms and puts them at the service of the particular experience of aesthetics “.

The mural inspired by the exponent of conceptual art Sol LeWitt installed on the facade of the Caio Melisso Theater in Spoleto on the occasion of the festival

Do you believe that digital is changing these mechanisms so deeply rooted in our history and in our culture?

“With digital, which is changing the world, we live like never before in a aesthetic world: the digital revolution combined with globalization has aestheticized the world, it was already talked about ten years ago but with it stress test of the pandemic today is much more evident. We have always had parallel worlds, but digital now you are eating slices of the physical world, with an impact on the style of interpersonal relationships, on the way of forming opinions and on the processes of disintermediation. Topics on which we have worked with the University of Parma a series of seminars, all on neuroscience and humanity. Even a politico, today, builds on aesthetic bases all communication: a politician in the past would never have spread images with bacon on the beach, but the new communication codes pass through theidentification of the politician with the public. The concept is no more vote me to be like me, ma vote for me and i will become like you, no longer the voter who aspires to become like the politician, but the politician who conforms to the voter.

“We are technological animals and technology is part of the human. The Tuscan landscape today, for example, is not natural at all, but it is the most artificial that can exist. The difference from the past is that today technology is expressed with the so-called digital mediascape. Each technology leads to changes, each with its own peculiarities. Technology is changing our life and potentially ours identity: there is our new digital self. Neuroscience must take these issues and study the digital mediation, stereo and surround sound, and how the size of a screen affects people’s reception. These are topics we still know very little about: it is not just about digital mediation, but also about remediation, because our relationship with reality is often the result of the pre-mediation of what we see online ”.

How much of the aesthetic question and parallel worlds can be found in the world of video games? Speaking of mirror neurons, do you share the alarmism about reproducing the actions that are performed by playing in the physical world?

“Video games are an aspect of interactivity, with a lot of badly told clichés and excessive demonization. There are scientific studies that show how digital interactivity and video games develop space skills e mnemoniche. We have mirror neurons, sure, but that doesn’t mean that if kids play a shooter then they go out on the street and kill people. These are shit, also because today the world is much less violent than in the past, and are boomer talk.

“We need to study these phenomena in a scientific way, without rhetoric or anything else. The disturbing themes are not video games, but the fact that the more time passes, the more research will be allowed only by grandi stakeholder of digital. Institutions that have the logic of knowledge first and not that of profit are less and less able to withstand the competition of companies like Google and Amazon. And it is a ethical and political risk, more than related to the technology itself “.

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