January 20, 2006

Page 13

It would be interesting, on many levels, to see early 21st century brain
science techniques brought to bear on studying how people respond to art.
There have been some studies done - some people, it has been shown, mirror the
facial expression of the subject when they are looking at portraiture, and it
appears that they actually feel the emotion being depicted. New brain
structures, called mirror neurons, found around the start of the 21st century,
provide a mechanism for understanding how this process works. It is likely
that the mirror neurons are highly involved in responses to art.

One of the other things that we are learning about the brain is that it is
much more plastic, more malleable at a later age, than had previously been
believed. It was shown some years back that brain cells are constantly being
produced in the brains of monkeys. It is likely that this is also true in
humans - there is no reason to suppose that it is not so. It has also been
shown in humans that certain brain regions enlarge under heavy use. London
taxicab drivers have a much larger hippocampus than average adults, and it has
further been shown that the longer someone has been a cab driver, the bigger
their hippocampus is. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that is
involved in navigating, so the correlation is clear - the more exercise the
hippocampus gets, and the longer it goes on, the bigger it gets.

The mirror neurons are brain structures that are involved in understanding
motivation, extrapolating unseen action from seen action, and in identifying
and empathizing with other people. These special neurons actually stimulate
the rest of the brain so that, for example, someone watching a sport will have
their sensory and motor centers switching on and off just as if they were
actually participating. The effect is even stronger if the viewer is someone
who does sometimes participate in that particular sport. So, to go back to
our art example, when the person views the portrait, it is probably not that
they take on the expression and then have the emotion. Instead, what is most
likely going on is that their mirror neurons process the facial expression for
them and then stimulate their brain so that they have the emotion; they then
take on the same expression as the work.

It has long been believed that women and men have differing levels of empathy.
This is something that is also being confirmed by science. Researchers are
also beginning to probe the brains of people with "non-traditional" gender
identities - gays and lesbians to start, and hopefully soon they will also
study bisexuals and transgendered persons. What is likely is that humans fall
across the whole spectrum, but that there are strong correlations - clumping
effects, if you will - between gender identity and brain structure. One of
the areas that will likely be fruitful for research will be in the
relationship between mirror neurons in specific and gender and how this
impacts what we are now coming to understand are gender-correlated behaviors.

Getting back to art again, it is reasonable to suppose that responsiveness to
certain forms of art - art with high emotive content, for example - is going
to be correlated with empathy and emotional communication in general. At
least in someone's initial experience, their response to art is likely to be
dominated by their innate predisposition. Somebody who is highly emotive is
likely to be very responsive to the emotional communication. On the other
side of the coin, someone who falls into what some call the "systematizer"
camp likely lacks the brain structures to appreciate or respond to the emotive
content. Over the long term, though, because the brain continues to grow and
change in response to experiences throughout adulthood, it should be possible
to stimulate and direct growth and learning so that even the systematizer can
understand, enjoy and even feel the emotional content of a work of art.

This is not to say that this process is the least bit simple or easy. It will
take time and a lot of exposure. Still, there is hope. Unless the structures
are someday found by some scientist to just not exist or to be hopelessly
deformed, even the densest systematizer should be able to learn to love art as
much as they love the artist.

Posted by scott at January 20, 2006 03:43 PM