Monday, February 27, 2017


Motor Responses in Viewing Art
We listen to music, and very often,without realizing it, the next thing we know, we are tapping our feet, clapping our hands, and swaying rhythmically to the melody and beat. 

We are dancing to the music!

Why does that happen? How does music do that? What is it about music that not only activates our midbrain and forebrain pleasure center (which I discussed in the last blog post), which are also sensory neural networks, but also our motor cortex?
Can art, the act of simply gazing at and meditating upon a painting, also cause such activity?
It turns out that the answer is yes.

My friend, Suzanne Nalbantian, Professor of comp lit at LIU, edited an extraordinary and important book called The Memory Process: Neuroscientific and Humanistic Perspectives(MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass 2010).

Rogier van der Weyden
The Descent from the Cross
(Prado, Madrid   c.1435)

The first chapter is by Professor David Freedberg, now head of the Warburg Institute in London, and at the time the Pierre Matisse Professor of Art at Columbia University. In the chapter, Freedberg opines about the neural responses to art, including empathy, compassion, and motor cortical responses.
Using Rogier's compelling manifesto, The Descent from the Cross (Prado Madrin, c. 1435, shown above) as a point of departure, Freedberg discusses, inter alia, empathy, compassion, and Rizzolati concept of "mirror neurons" as ways by which we humans use not only our receptive cortices - the occipital cortex (V1) and the temporal cortex, to receive information from our sensory system, but also (with the mirror neuron system), our motor cortices. The MIT Press blurb for the book, The Memory Process, reminds us that: 
" The traditional divide between the sciences and the humanities has long been seen in terms of the tension between naturalist and materialist views, on the one hand, and sensitivity to contextual and social constraints, on the other. But this conventional dichotomy collapses in the face of the evidence for the neural bases of empathetic engagement with works of art..... Prefrontal modulation of lower-level cerebral responses offers more flexible and inventive ways of thinking about the relationship between automaticity and experience. Recent research on memory confounds the separation of history and experience from the corporeal and psychological entailments of beholding a visual image, and a work of art in particular. The subject of embodied responses—much discussed in recent years by humanist scholars—now stands at the intersection of several fields within the cognitive neurosciences."

We all know that Music tends to get us moving.
So does viewing Art.

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