In the Spring of 2013, the US government announced a massively funded initiative to map brain circuits in an attempt to advance the field of neuroscience. This study, dubbed the Brain Activity Map, hopes to further our understanding of the electrically excitable brain cells called neurons, which communicate with each other via electrical and chemical signals known as synapses.1 In the same year, the European Union also launched an extensive ten-year study called the Human Brain Project, which plans to construct a complete computer model of a functioning brain.2 This study will break barriers in medical research related to healing and brain development, uncovering corners of the brain we hadn’t previously seen. We’re years away from knowing what will be uncovered through these projects, but it is particularly prescient for an art collective such as Liu Dao to consider what happens to our brains when we make art and subsequently, to viewers’ brains when they see it. It turns out that we don’t even know the half of what goes on up there.
Art with a capitol “A” is made by a wide variety of people, in a wide variety of places, every day. What creative individuals have in common has been debated for centuries. A phenomenon of particular note is that which occurs to people who suffer from brain injuries or deteriorative conditions. Patients who suffer from frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a brain degeneration condition, experience damage to the side and frontal regions of the brain, which can interfere with essential sources of personality, behavior, and language. People with FTD frequently develop creative and artistic talents that were not present before they were stricken with the disease.3 Images of such patients’ brains reveal that the degeneration possibly freed circuits in other parts of the brain, essentially remodeling itself, and releasing the capacity for processing visual imagery that is inaccessible for the majority of the population. This suggests that certain brains are, to put it simply, wired to be creative. We like to imagine that art impacts our eyes, souls, and brains when really; it’s our brain that impacts art.
Figural art, above any other type of imagery, affects our brain in incredible ways. What is it about art depicting other humans that we find so compelling? Hours are spent contemplating Michelangelo’s “David,” Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s “Grande Odalisque” has incited lust and outrage since its debut, while Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is burned into the minds of millions, has been the target of several thefts, and has spawned dozens of caricatures. Advances in neuroscience suggest that there is a particular ingredient dancing around in our brains that causes severe emotional reactions to works of art. Dubbed “mirror neurons,” these cells are activated not only when we perform a particular action, like clutching a lover’s hand, but also fire when we watch someone else perform that same action. 4 Chemically speaking, our brains do not differentiate between performing and observing actions.
The discovery of mirror neurons revolutionized our understanding of how humans are… human. These brain cells have been hailed as the cornerstone of human empathy, or that essential ability to understand and share the feelings of others.5 Oh, you thought you were a sensitive person if seeing others cry makes you drum up tears of your own? Nope, it’s just your brain. So, what does this mean for art? There is preference and value to consider, and of course social discourse and cultural worldview all have a hand in reception, but our brain’s chemical processes take up more room than we realize.
When we stand in front of a work of figural art, our brain cells analyze the contours of faces, the wrinkles in brows and pouting of lips, the tension in hands, and the pouching of stomachs. We read motion and emotion, and, if mirror neurons are to be taken into account, we experience those same actions and feelings, essentially melding the existence and mindset of the art with our own.6 We further layer our own emotions and memories onto works of art in a seemingly endless act of give and take. Ultimately, we have to question where the art begins and we end.
Humans have long had a complex relationship with figural imagery. The ink and paint versions of our flesh and bone came into being as early as 17,000 years ago, when Paleolithic artists created vibrant scenes on the walls of the Lascaux cave complex in southwestern France. As religions formed, so too did visual culture advance to meet the needs of these new groups. Gods could be made manifest on earth through chiseled wood, reflective glass eyes, and outstretched arms of clay. The ancient Maya of Mexico adorned, fed, and lovingly cared for objects like incense burners, which were formed with the faces of ancestors, gods, and other influential beings.
The relationship between people and these items was intense and complex, but one has to wonder if staring into a human or humanoid face tickled mirror neurons and heightened emotions. The same argument can be made for the andachtsbilder, or Christian devotional images, which served as popular prayer aids in northern Renaissance households. With brutal renditions of Christ’s broken body and the Virgin’s weeping face, the devout could visualize the suffering so essential to their beliefs and provoked powerful feelings of empathy. Through this powerful wish to connect with objects, the world has even witnessed (or imagined they witnessed, or hoped they witnessed) art responding in kind. “Our Lady of Akita,” a Marian apparition and weeping statue first witnessed in 1973 in the rural area of Yuzawadai, Japan, allegedly performed miraculous healings. To date, it is the only weeping statue that has officially been recognized by the Vatican. This kind of intense connection with art is layered with religious belief, cultural circumstance, and myriad other factors. But at the end of the day, it is essentially a human brain waltzing with figural art in a highly emotional dance.
Visual art is not the only creative outlet so powerfully affected by the brain. Music, perhaps even more than any other art form, has the ability to trigger a massive and varying host of neurons. When we hear music, multiple regions of the brain alight: muscular, auditory, visual, and linguistic.7 Even people who have lost their ability for language can still articulate text when it is sung in lyrical format. We casually toss around the phrase “transformative” when we discuss music, but we have no idea just how deeply this effect is felt.
Even as we discover just how much we don’t know about how the processes of our own brains, we continually push to understand this vital organ. Is it enough to refer to the brain as just an organ anymore? Perhaps it is simple human narcissism that prevents us from just referring to ourselves as walking brains instead of human beings. After all, a “being” encompasses so much of reality and existence. When we try to pinpoint all of the steps taken in an action or emotion, we inevitably falter.
Just as schoolchildren forget to instruct their partners to pickup a slice of bread, so too do we fail to acknowledge just how intricate the processes are that allow us to see and experience works of art. Viewing figural art is the ultimate “me show,” literally. So, the next time you find yourself relating to a work of art, reach up for a high five from those feisty mirror neurons, and give a thought to what makes your experience… yours.
1 John Markoff and James Gorman, “Obama to Unveil Initiative to Map the Human Brain.” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/02/science/obama-to-unveil-initiative-to-map-the-human-brain.html?hpw
3 Emily Sohn, “After brain damage, the creative juices flow for some.” http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/20/health/la-he-diseases-art-20110516
5 Jason Marsh, “Do Mirror Neurons Give Us Empathy?” http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/do_mirror_neurons_give_empathy
6 Eric Kandel, “What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art,” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/opinion/sunday/what-the-brain-can-tell-us-about-art.html?pagewanted=all
7 David Byrne, “How Do Our Brains Process Music?” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-do-our-brains-process-music-32150302/?no-ist