Past Event

The Body in Aesthetic Experience: A Multidisciplinary Perspective

October 5, 2010
6:00 PM - 8:00 PM
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Vittorio Gallese (University of Parma)

The Italian Academy is proud to present a talk by Vittorio Gallese of the University of Parma on The Body in Aesthetic Experience: A Multidisciplinary Perspective, with respondents David Freedberg (author of The Power of Images, Professor of Art History at Columbia and Director of the Italian Academy) and Daniel Salzman (Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Columbia and expert on the neural basis of cognitive and emotional behavior).

Prof. Gallese’s 2007 talk at the Italian Academy drew a full house and provoked a lively post-lecture discussion. He is renowned as a chief member of the team of researchers that discovered mirror neurons. The importance of this discovery, made along with Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues at the University of Parma, has created tremendous excitement in the field of the neurosciences and in areas ranging from the humanities to the social sciences. In a much-heralded study, motor neurons, located in the pre-motor cortex of the brain, were shown to fire both when a monkey performs an action and when it observes another animal performing that same action. Mirror systems have subsequently been discovered in the human brain as well, casting light on the empathetic understanding of action and touch. The discovery has strengthened hope for a deeper understanding of language, empathy, autism and the intentions and goals of others. Mirror neurons are also being studied in the field of theory of mind. Prof. Gallese has continued to build on that initial research, broadening our understanding of social interactions and the variety of embodied responses that underlie our understanding of others. 

Prof. Gallese invites the audience on October 5 to explore neuroesthetics, “the field within cognitive neuroscience investigating the neural underpinnings of aesthetic experience, particularly in visual arts. Neuroscience has investigated this area using brain imaging and neurophysiological techniques. Much attention has been paid to the role of the visual brain in aesthetic experience. Yet, the complexity of the relation that builds between an artwork and the observer compels us to reason beyond the mere, though vital, perceptual – and mostly visual, as accounted for Neuroesthetics – ability of the brain to capture essential perceptual elements from the environment. Observing the world is a more complex enterprise than the mere activation of the visual brain, as it implies a multi-modal notion of vision that encompasses the activation of somatosensory and emotion-related components, within the more general frame of the intrinsic pragmatic nature of every intentional relation with the external world. Our fruition of art is certainly cognitively mediated, because the peculiar quality of our aesthetic experience is influenced by our personal culture, by the environment in which we were educated, by the aesthetic canons informing our time, by our level of expertise and familiarity with the art works we contemplate. However, in aesthetic experience there are components that, in my view, cannot be disregarded as they constitute the most direct “access keys” to the beholders’ comprehension of the artwork; that is, the embodied motor and emotional components of aesthetic experience.
In my talk I will discuss the functional relevance of these components for aesthetic experience. Capitalizing upon the fundamental role of empathy in visual art appreciation, I will propose an embodied theory of aesthetic experience that emphasizes the role of motor and emotional embodied simulation mechanisms in the beholder.” 

About the Participants: 

Vittorio Gallese is Professor of Physiology at the Department Neuroscience of the School of Medicine of the University of Parma and is the Coordinator of the PhD Program in Neuroscience there. He has worked at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and at the Nihon University of Tokyo, Japan, and in 2002 he was Visiting Professor at the Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences at the University of California at Berkeley. His major research interests are the relationship between action perception and cognition, using a variety of neurophysio-logical and neuroimaging techniques. He is also interested in developing an interdisciplinary approach to the understanding of the embodied bases of intersubjectivity and social cognition. He has published about 100 papers in international peer-reviewed journals and edited books.

David Freedberg is Professor of Art History at Columbia University and Director of the Italian Academy. He is best known for his work on psychological responses to art, and particularly for his studies on iconoclasm and censorship. His recent work addresses the history of science and the importance of the new cognitive neurosciences for the study of art and its history. 

Daniel Salzman is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Columbia University. He received his M.D. and Ph.D. from Stanford University, where also obtained his clinical training in Psychiatry. Since joining the faculty at Columbia in 2001, Dr. Salzman has focused his lab on understanding how emotion and related processes are represented and regulated in the brain.