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.
Figure 1. Embodied simulation in esthetic experience: actions. The sense of exertion, which Michelangelo intended his figures to show as they struggle to escape from the block of stone, is effectively conveyed to the spectator. Michelangelo, Slave called Atlas, Florence, Academia (ca. 1520–1523), marble © Scala/Art Resource, NY.
Figure 2. Embodied simulation in esthetic experience: empathy for pain. The viewing of images of punctured or damaged body parts activates part of the same network of brain centers that are normally activated by our own sensation of pain, accounting for the feeling of physical sensation and corresponding shock upon observation of pressure or damage to the skin and limbs of others. Goya, Que hay que hacer mas? (What more is there to do?), plate 33 from Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War), etching, Biblioteque Nationale, Paris, France © Bridgeman-Giraudon/Art Resource, NY.
Figure 3. Embodied simulation in esthetic experience: implied gestures of the artist. The gestures that are only implicit in the marks on these works of art are corporeally felt by their spectators. (a) Jackson Pollock, Number 14: Gray (1948), enamel over gesso on paper, Yale University Gallery, The Katharine Ordway Collection © 2004 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (b) Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale ‘Atteza’ (‘Waiting’) (1960), canvas, Tate Gallery, London © Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY/ Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milano.
Figure 4. The mirror neuron system in monkeys and humans. (a) Activation of the area F5 mirror neuron during motor-act observation. (b) Activation of the area F5 mirror neuron during action execution. For both conditions, six consecutive rasters (spike recordings) during six consecutive trials are shown. The arrows indicate the onset of observed and executed grasping. (a) and (b) modified, with permission, from Ref. . (c) Somatotopy of premotor and parietal cortices as revealed by fMRI during action observation. Activation foci are projected on the lateral surface of a standard brain (MNI). Red, activation during the observation of mouth grasping; green, activation during the observation of hand grasping; blue, activation during the observation of foot kicking. Overlap of colors indicates activation foci present during observation of actions made by different effectors.