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The Body, the Brain, Symbolic Expression and Its Experience: An Experimental Aesthetics Perspective

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Wed Jan 28th 6pm ; Feb 11th 6pm and Feb 18th 6pm.

Chandaria Lectures, Senate House (London WC1), Room 349, third floor.

Cognitive neuroscience can shed new light – from its own methodological reductionist perspective – on the aesthetic quality of human nature and its natural creative inclination. By exploiting the neurocognitive approach, viewed as a sort of ‘cognitive archeology’, we can empirically investigate the neurophysiological brain-body mechanisms that make our interactions with the world possible, detect possible functional antecedents of our cognitive skills and measure the socio-cultural influence exerted by human cultural evolution onto the very same cognitive skills. We can now look at the aesthetic-symbolic dimension of human existence not only from a semiotic-hermeneutic perspective, but starting from the dimension of bodily presence. In so doing we can deconstruct some of the concepts we normally use when referring to intersubjectivity or to aesthetics and art, as well as when referring to the experience we make of them.

This approach, which I’ll designate as ‘experimental aesthetics’, can enrich our understanding of symbolic expression and its reception, by studying their neural and bodily components. The definition of art and the way we appreciate it are both historically and socio-culturally determined. However, while acknowledging that aesthetic experience is multilayered, the cognitive primacy of our reactions to the outcomes of symbolic expression can be challenged. In the course of the three lectures ’ll review empirical work on the aesthetic experience of static and moving images like paintings, and movies. I will posit that the aesthetic experience of the outcomes of human symbolic expression can be grounded on the variety of embodied simulation mechanisms they evoke in beholders.
I will show that the symbolic processes characterizing our species, in spite of their progressive abstraction and externalization from the body, keep their bodily ties intact. Symbolic expression is tied to the body not only because the body is the symbol-making instrument, but also because it is the main medium allowing symbols experience.
It will be concluded that cognitive neuroscience can surrender us from the forced choice between the totalizing relativism of social constructivism, which doesn’t leave any room to the constitutive role of the brain-body in cognition, and the deterministic scientism of some quarters of evolutionary psychology, which aims at explaining art exclusively in terms of adaptation and modularity.

Vittorio Gallese is professor of human physiology at the University of Parma, Italy with appointments in the departments of neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology. He is an expert in neurophysiology, neuroscience, social neuroscience, and philosophy of mind. Gallese is one of the discoverers of mirror neurons. His research attempts to elucidate the functional organization of brain mechanisms underlying social cognition, including action understanding, empathy, and theory of mind.