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Martin Kevorkian, Chair CAL 226, Mailcode B5000, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-4991

Renowned neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese to speak at UT on art, empathy, and the body

Posted: January 23, 2011
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Are human beings “hard-wired” for empathy? If so, how might this innate capacity affect our experiences of art and literature? Are such experiences primarily personal, or are they widely shared? Do they vary from culture to culture, or from one time period to another? On February 16th, the internationally acclaimed MD neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese will explore these and other questions in his lecture “Body and Empathy in Aesthetic Experience: A Neuroscientific Perspective.”

A leading theorist of the neuroscience of empathy, inter-subjectivity and aesthetic perception, Gallese is a member of the team of researchers at the University of Parma, Italy, that discovered the Mirror Neuron Mechanism in primate brains—a finding that has been compared to the discovery of DNA. This research has important implications for literary studies and the humanities, as Gallese has argued.

On February 16th at 7:00 p.m., Professor Gallese will speak in the Mezes Hall Auditorium, 1.306. Sponsored by the Department of English and the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas, and co-sponsored by the Center for European Studies and the Department of French & Italian, this lecture is free and open to the public.

Gallese states: “Art is the ripe fruit of the way in which human beings at a given point in their cultural evolution were able to relate with the external world. The material world was no longer exclusively considered as a domain to exploit for the utilitarian satisfaction of biological needs. Material objects lost their unique status of tools to become symbols, public epiphanies able to make visible something absent, something that apparently is only present in the mind of the artist and of the beholder.

“Today cognitive neuroscience has the tools to shed new light—from its own peculiar and reductionist perspective—on the aesthetic quality of human nature and its natural creative inclination.

“This new research field has the potentiality to help us understanding how and why works of art best express our human nature. The phrase ‘aesthetic experience’ connotes a multilayered state in which several dimensions can be distinguished. The current available evidence suggests that a distinction should be made between mere observation, aesthetic attitude, aesthetic appraisal and aesthetic judgment. These different ways of relating to an object are apparently underpinned by different brain mechanisms.

“The contemporary way of appreciating works of art is historically and culturally determined. However, while believing that aesthetic experience is multilayered, I still posit it to be grounded on a core component without which it cannot be fully understood. I submit that this component can be found in the variety of embodied resonance mechanisms that I will concisely review during my talk.”

“The discovery of mirroring mechanisms in the human brain and the functional hypothesis modeling these mechanisms—embodied simulation—offer the opportunity to shed new light on the empathic reactions triggered by aesthetic experiences. During my talk I will challenge the cognitive primacy in our reactions to art. I will propose that a crucial element of aesthetic response consists of the activation of embodied mechanisms encompassing the simulation of actions, emotions, and corporeal sensation; and that these mechanisms are universal. This basic level of reaction to works of art is essential to understanding their effectiveness. Historical, cultural and other contextual factors do not preclude the importance of considering the neural processes that arise in the empathic understanding of works of art.”

For more information about Professor Gallese and his research, please click here.

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