One of the reasons why many people have an aesthetic appreciation for art is the range of empathetic feelings created during the art observation process. Related to observation is a class of motor neuron called a mirror neuron. Located in the brain, this particular type of neuron is a component of the much larger brain/body neural net. Although the exact relationship to art is not fully understood, scientific evidence shares some interesting notions about the role of mirror neurons.
In the general sense, mirror neurons fire in our brain when we use our senses to observe actions and activities outside of our own bodies. The same mirror neurons, interestingly enough, will fire when we physically mimic the same actions or activities that we observed. For example, if a person were to watch another person skip rope and then skip rope themselves, aspects of that person’s brain would not know the difference between the watching and doing.
It is safe to say then that mirror neurons are related to the human ability to physically imitate as well as the ability to create a mental model of the observed experience. It goes further in that these neurons send signals to the emoting part of the brain which contribute to the creation of feelings and sensations. When a feeling is created in ourselves as it relates to something, or someone, ‘outside’ of ourselves, the result is empathy.
The creation of empathy applies to things like realistic representations such as the skip rope example. But it can also apply to non-realistic representations such as abstract art. When artists use their hands to make art, they create visual details and qualities such as brush strokes in a painting or chisel marks in a sculpture. These details and qualities can be termed ‘graphic artifacts’, and when observed, cause mirror neurons to fire which then a modeled imitative experience occurs within the observer. Essentially, the observer’s mind embodies the piece of art as a result of the empathy created by the mirror neuron processes.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, the brain/body system interacts with art in complex ways and mirror neurons appear to be a contributing player. Keep in mind, the complexities and widely varying scientific opinions surroundings motor neurons are not fully understood even by the scientific community. With that said it is also intriguing to entertain how mirror neurons relate to art.