Monday, February 2, 2009

Art and the brain: mirror neurons

In the cafe while I was writing this post, a wayward spritz of lemon juice intended for my Caesar salad nearly hit the woman at the table to my left. I looked her way, vaguely embarrassed, and realized in horror that she was washing and putting in contact lenses. At her table. Next to mine. In the cafe. Where there is food. My salad, for instance. 

Seriously, how is this okay? Eyeballs are cool from a scientific or medical standpoint, but eyeballs and salad just do not mix, people! But perhaps an accidental drop of lemon juice in her contact lens solution will teach her to attend to her eyes in the bathroom. 

I digress. 

Actually, no I don't. Eyeballs are totally relevant, because this post is about how the brain interprets art, and for visual art that begins with the eyes. 

Let's get straight to the heavy questions: Why does art appear in every culture? What makes it so important to both create and view aesthetically pleasing stuff? What goes on in the brain that allows us to enjoy something subjective like art? 

The branch of science attempting to answer such questions from a neurological perspective is called neuroesthetics.

Imagine my disappointment on finding that just days before this blog launched, I missed the 8th Annual International Conference on Neuroesthetics at the University of California, Berkeley. (Its being the 8th annual conference implies that I also missed the 2nd through 7th conferences during the years I lived in Berkeley. So it goes.) This particular conference tackled the topic of mirror neurons, crucial networks of cells in our brains that respond to the behavior of others. 

Mirror neurons can be pretty important in development. They help us learn how to do things like, say, sticking your tongue out at somebody:

The video, which accompanied a paper by researchers from the University of Parma, Italy, shows a baby rhesus macaque monkey imitating a researcher sticking out his tongue. During the imitations, mirror neurons in the monkey's brain are responding to the researcher's actions, which the monkey then imitates.

Humans have mirror neurons, too, and they're almost constantly active even though we don't realize it and usually don't outwardly imitate the action we see. Watch me eat my salad and somewhere in your brain you're eating salad, too. You don't even have to directly see the action; any mention of the activity will do it. Merely reading about salad means that your mirror neurons are responding with an inner salad experience. (I hope you like Caesar.)

Mirror neuron responses go beyond imitation of movement, however. We use these responses to infer another's intent in taking an action and to empathize with them. If I take a forkful of salad, your mirrored forkful is connected to the related actions of chewing and swallowing. From this, you infer that I will eat the salad, and that I am doing so because I am hungry. I'm not merely moving lettuce -- I have a plan; you know that without having to consciously think about it. If my salad is delicious (and it is), I will smile and you will inwardly smile and feel satisfied. That's empathy, courtesy of your mirror neurons. 

So what is going on in our brains when we view art? We are mirroring the Mona Lisa's smile and we are screaming back at The Scream. We are experiencing the actions and emotions of others in the artwork and perhaps. In the creation of the work and our response, the artist is exploring the shared experiences that are communicated by our mirror neurons. In the words of Semir Zeki, a professor of neurobiology at University College London, "...the artist is in a sense, a neuroscientist, exploring the potentials and capacities of the brain, though with different tools."

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