Monday, July 27, 2015

Embodied Cognition

Embodied cognition is an emerging idea in neuroscience which explores the connection between the mind and the body.

Contrary to the older view dating back to Descartes that the mind and body occupy separate realms, and that aesthetic activity is a largely disembodied experience, embodied cognition holds that the body is not only intimately connected to brain activity, but that it plays a strong role in shaping it.

Tom Lovell, 1949 illustration for Redbook, courtesy Jim Pinkoski 
The implications for practicing artists are profound. Recent studies have shown that the act of observing a painting of people participating in an action engages mirror neurons in our own brains. That activity in turn is greatly influenced by similar experiences that we have had.

"Performing an action requires the information to flow out from the control centers to the limbs. But observing the action requires the information to flow inward from the image you're seeing into the control centers," says science writer Kat Zambon. "So that bidirectional flow is what's captured in this concept of mirror neurons and it gives the extra vividness to this aesthetics of art appreciation."

The act of drawing or painting engages the brain in even deeper ways. Lora Likova, PhD, of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, is working on art-based interventions with blindfolded and sight-impaired subjects to better understand the integrative process between the body, the mind, and the perceptual system. 

She says that drawing is “an amazing process that requires precise orchestration of multiple brain mechanisms, perceptual processing, memory, precise motor planning and motor control, spatial transformations, emotions, and other diverse cognitive functions.”

It's no wonder then that talking while drawing requires such mental effort—unless a person is practiced enough at it that the neural pathways have had time to develop in the more automatic centers of the brain.
Auditory mirror neurons
This is true not only for artists but for musicians. Appreciating the art of another artist practitioner engages our brains in deeper ways, especially if you are an experienced practitioner. 

My son is an accordion player, and I've noticed that when he listens to another accordionist playing, my son's fingers are twitching slightly.
Previously on GurneyJourney: Brain Scans of Artists While Drawing
Irish Music from the Hudson Valley by Dylan Foley and Dan Gurney


Jake Murray said...

James were you the one who posted an article (last year I think) that explored this concept as it related to phantom limb pain? Really really interesting and exciting stuff.

Tom Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Hart said...

Very interesting. Regarding the point that it's hard to draw and have a conversation at the same time: Do you think there's something that makes that true specifically for drawing, as opposed to painting? I often talk on the phone (hands-free, with earbuds and microphone) while painting (but come to think of it, not as I recall when I'm doing the preliminary drawing) and I don't find that to be an impediment at all. Maybe it's the disembodied nature of that conversation - i.e., that the other person isn't present, and therefore isn't another set of eyes on what I'm doing - ? Anyway, that question is timely for me, having had that experience again just yesterday.

Maia Sanders said...

Last year, I made a very thorough "how are you feeling" mood chart for a child psychologist. She gave me a list of 48 emotions, about 75% negative. Every picture I drew changed my own mood! A friend was watching at one point while I was drawing and he noted I had been making the face and body posture for each emotion as I drew it. The project went over time by a week so I could break up the work a little and not be angry or sad or fearful all day long. Thankfully, my client was a psychologist so she was accepting of my deadline slip.

Related: I also teach drawing and I have learned that in teaching figure drawing to teens and young adults the only way they can draw grounded and balanced figures is to stand up and take the posture of the model themselves. older adults and children do not seem to have this problem, in my limited experience. Now I must consider the reasons for this....

Antti Maalismaa said...

I wonder if this is related to the phenomenon that one tends to contort their face or body unconsciously whilst trying to convey (draw) an emotion? Not necessarily even a physical one -- when I am drawing (or indeed writing!) an emotional scene, I tend to have a grimace of sorts on my face, even though I am not rationally feeling or thinking it.

Worth noting that the grimace or movement is not always the same I'm drawing, but more of a reaction or co-action to the action taking place in the work.

Steve said...

Certain wisdom traditions have long taught that body and mind are one indivisible field, with a flowing interplay -- not between two discrete entities -- but different vibrational modulations of one seamless reality. For years, the Dalai Lama has hosted a conference (the Mind and Life Institute) of neuroscientists and experienced meditators to share discoveries in a collaborative exploration that is simultaneously ancient and cutting edge. For two years, I had the privilege of transcribing hours of those conversations. The science of body/mind functioning is bringing measurable data to, and providing a Western context for, insights reported for centuries by adept meditators.

Several years ago, I spent the day at Cedar Point amusement park, riding big roller coasters. Late in the afternoon, we went to the IMAX theater in the park. The movie showed the biggest roller coasters In the world, all filmed from the front seat, the sound recorded in Dolby surround. My motionless body was taking in the experience purely through visual and auditory cues. The experience produced a stomach-dropping jolt of adrenalin and weightlessness that was more strongly experienced in the body than the "real" rides I'd been on earlier. I staggered out of the theater, a bit queasy for the next few hours.

Susan Krzywicki said...

We've been taught that our emotions were in our heart and our thoughts in our brain. Now we learn they are running around all over the place! That is so cool..

Side note re: Maia's comments: it amazes me that when people write up lists of emotions, they are almost always overwhelmingly "negative." Even the recent movie, "Inside Out" has only one "positive" emotion. I think this is because psychology has always been focused on studying abnormality and problems.

Time to focus on the positive!