The empathic screen. Interview with Professor Vittorio Gallese.

There are moments in the history of scientific discoveries brought to fruition, in which the answers are found not only to assumptions made by scientists at the beginning of the search, but also to other questions that were not subject to direct investigation.
These questions – albeit unexpected – are welded so the initial applications and the evidence found as a whole not only close the circle of the research undertaken, but open and unfold new horizons of research.
This is the case of mirror neurons, the discovery of the now famous team of Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti, of which was also part Professor Vittorio Gallese, who has demonstrated the existence of particular motor cells of the brain that are activated not only when performing of movements and actions, but are able to perform a perceptual function, becoming active also during the observation of other individuals that perform similar actions and movements.
Subsequent discoveries have also shown that the motor field is not exclusive, but that such a mechanism would also cover the emotional and sensory fields, with a number of consequences to fall in many areas of science and beyond.
Professor Gallese– Professor of Physiology at the Department of Neurosciences of the School of Medicine of the University of Parma, Coordinator of the PhD in Neuroscience and Director of the Graduate School of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine of the same University and since 2010 also Adjunct Senior Research Scholar at the Dept. of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University in New York – is particularly active in multidisciplinary research investigating the possible applications of mirror neurons and in the dissemination of this fundamental discovery. This is also due to his humanistic skills and his natural vocation to knowledge sharing.
That of mirror neurons is indeed a discovery not only celebrated with increasing interest in the field of neuroscience in Italy and in Europe and overseas, but that now involves directly or bypass a number of other important disciplines, both scientific and humanistic.
Responding with great courtesy and availability to our invitation, Professor Gallese, in the occasion of the recent release of a new book, “The empathic screen. Cinema and neuroscience”, written together with Michele Guerra, has provided a number of exciting and passionate responses to the questions that we asked, ranging from mirror neurons to communication practices, Social importance of creativity, literature, aesthetics. With the ability to look and vision of those who have made knowledge the ‘embodiment’ not only of their science, but of their passion for research and for humanity.
But let’s see how the professor answered our many questions.

We start from the discovery of mirror neurons. How does it feel to see realized one’s own “prediction” in science, and so far-reaching?

 

The discovery of mirror neurons that took place by chance, was the ripe fruit of research carried out in very different ways by the then prevailing neurophysiological methodology of investigation. Instead of studying the hypothetical contribution of a certain part of the brain to a given perceptual, motor or cognitive function, our approach was much more ‘open’: we were interested in understanding what were the functional properties of neurons that populate regions of the motor cerebral cortex. In other words, we not only asked a ‘single question’ to neurons, but many. We wanted to understand, for example, if and how motor neurons, those that control the execution of actions would also respond to sensory stimuli, such as tactile, visual or auditory ones.

We went decidedly against the current in assuming a perceptual role for the motor system. Until the early eighties of the last century prevailed the idea of a strict division of labor among different areas of the brain, characterized by a strict separation between perception, cognition and movement.
In those years Giacomo Rizzolatti and the group of researchers led by him, of which I was already part as a student, put in crisis the mainstream model of vision, showing how action and perception are integrated by many motor neurons that also respond to tactile, visual and auditory stimuli. This integration takes place in the neurons that control the execution of actions, such as grasping objects with the hand. We had found that some of these neurons, then named as ‘canonical neurons’, are activated even in the absence of movement, during the observation of the same objects of which they control the grasping. Thanks to this mechanism of motor simulation, the object seen is ‘translated’ into a motor pattern, the pattern normally used to grasp it.
To see an object means also to simulate its grasping. The object in this way is perceptually ’embraced’ by the viewer, because it is mapped through a motor simulation, as a potential target of an action directed to it by the observer. As we studied the properties of these neurons, we found that some of them were not activated when viewing objects, but while watching our actions on those same items. Later on we decided to use the metaphor of the mirror to describe them: the visual response of the neuron reflects its motor one. The same neuron that controls the execution of one’s own action also responds to the observation of the same action performed by others. The mirroring mechanism is certainly often the basis of mimetic and imitative learning.

After this first discovery many more ensued. Our research, along with that of many other colleagues around the world, showed that similar mechanisms of mirroring are in our brain for emotions and feelings. The same areas of the brain that are activated when we feel disgust or pain, or we experience a tactile sensation, are also activated when we see others experiencing the same emotions and sensations.
I introduced the model of embodied simulation to describe a basic functional mechanism of our brain that connects us with others. In practice, we reuse the same non-linguistic neural representations that govern our actions, emotions and sensations to recognize them in others. Embodied simulation is, however, only one of the mechanisms underlying our intersubjectivity, which is also based on more cognitive and inferential modalities of comprehension of the other. Probably embodied simulation is the oldest mechanism from an evolutionary point of view and the earlier to manifest from the point of view of the development of the individual.
According to my hypothesis, thanks to embodied simulation we have the ability to access the world of the other from within. Thanks to the reuse of neuronal circuits that normally govern our actions, emotions and sensations, we can understand in experiential terms actions, emotions and sensations of others. Embodied simulation is in fact a basic and crucial mechanism of intersubjectivity.

The discovery of mirror neurons was made by accident, but it was not a coincidence that it was us. We were ready to ‘see’ the kind of property because we knew that the motor system not only makes us move, but also helps us to see the world around us. The most radical novelty promoted by the discovery of mirror neurons and the mechanisms of mirroring discovered afterwards in the human brain, however, is another. It is the demonstration of how fundamental and constitutive be the relationship binding us to others. Even at a neurophysiological level there is a shared dimension: not only my actions, emotions and sensations are similar to those of the other, but also the underlying neurobiological basis is partly common. The other is for us something more and different from an object to be understood and interpreted. The other is another you.

The second question is the consequence of the first: from the growing interest in these issues, that in fact change many things, what scenarios, and in what areas will this different point of view change? A point of view that – finally – changes perspective in relation to the link between mind and body. A link that artists never questioned.

 

You are right. What does the concept of embodiment express? It means that body parts, actions or bodily representations play an important role in cognitive processes. States or mental processes are embodied in the measure in which they are represented in a format. The same content, such as an action or intention, may be represented in a bodily or propositional format. The idea is that the bodily format predated the propositional one, both philogenetically and ontogenetically. We do not know exactly whether the propositional format is totally separate / separable from the body. Personally I suspect it is not. But it remains a fact that these different representational formats allow you to build very diversified content. Mind and body are two words that describe different aspects closely intertwined in our biological nature. For centuries we have kept separate the body from the mind, perception from action and the I from the Thou.
Fortunately today I feel we are moving in another direction, which seeks to highlight the crucial importance of embodiment for consciousness, thought and language.

Before speaking about aesthetics, however, I would like to add something about language. Embodied simulation speaks of non-linguistic modes of inter-subjective relationship, but obviously, if we want to understand human nature, language is essential. The discovery of mirror neurons has also opened new perspectives to the study of language. Mirror neurons are activated not only when we see perform an action, but also when we hear or read about it.
Together with the American cognitive linguist George Lakoff I proposed the close link between linguistic expressions, body and embodied simulation. In fact, even when we read body-related metaphors – such as those with tactile content, as ‘a rough character’ – we activate the sensorimotor areas that map the sensation, when we experience it literally. My hypothesis of ‘neural reuse’ claims that we use brain mechanisms originally evolved to guide our interactions with the world, then putting them to the service of more recently evolved skills, such as language.
The abstract aspects of language are now the main challenge for our approach, and it is to these aspects that we are directing part of our research.

In an article published in 2011 together with a scholar of English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, Hannah Chapelle Wojciehowski, I proposed that the ‘sense of the body’ (Feeling of body, FoB) is an important element of our involvement with fiction narrative. The sense of the body is the result of a basic functional mechanism made possible by our mind-body system, Embodied Simulation, allowing a more direct and less cognitively mediated access to the world of the other. Embodied simulation, as we have seen, mediates the ability to share the meaning of the actions, basic motor intentions, emotions and sensations of others, thus founding our identification and connection with others. In agreement with this hypothesis, intersubjectivity should be understood mostly and primarily as intercorporeality. Narrative is a peculiar form of mediated intersubjectivity, where the text – the medium – allows readers to engage in relationships of different types with fictional characters and, through them, with the author. Literary theorists in recent years are more and more interested in the cognitive sciences, particularly by resorting to the theory of mind, suggesting that many levels of the text can be explained by special meta-representational features of our brain.
I believe that, at best, a literary theory of this kind may constitute only one out of the many possible approaches to the literary text. Moreover, this approach ignores or minimizes what seems to me a fundamental element of the relationship that both the author and the reader establish with the text, the sense of the body generated by embodied simulation. My proposal for an embodied narratology is founded on the belief that this approach can shed new light on literary studies, providing new information on the relationship of the author and readers with the text. Embodied simulation could be relevant to how we experience narrative, for two reasons: First, because of the sense of the body activated by the narrated characters and by the situations with which we identify, thanks to the mechanisms of mirroring and simulation they generate in readers. In this way, embodied simulation generates the unique ‘seeing-through-the-eyes-of’ that plays a special role in our aesthetic experience. Second, for the bodily memories and imaginative associations that the narrated material evokes in readers’ minds, without having to think about it explicitly.

Now let’s talk about aesthetic experience. The use of all forms of fiction we now call ‘art’ implies common features that can now be usefully investigated also by neuroscience. The feeling of bodily involvement caused by paintings, sculptures, architectural forms, film and literature, increases our emotional responses to those same objects. Because of that, it is a key ingredient of our aesthetic experience.
My theory of Embodied Simulation specifically seeks to grasp these aspects. Below the most cognitive-linguistic aspects guiding our experience of art, there is a bodily dimension- already sensed in the past by many philosophers and art historians – that we are now able to study empirically. Embodied simulation is important to define aesthetic experience in at least three ways: First, thanks to the bodily feelings aroused by the content of works of art with which we interact, through the mirroring mechanisms that they evoke. In this way embodied simulation generates that particular empathic involvement that plays a vital role in aesthetic experience. Second, by virtue of embodied memories and associations that imaginative works of art awaken in beholders: each of us projects something personal in what is looking at. Third, due to the possibility that certain images have to awaken in the viewer the simulation of the gestures that produced them. With a recent study by Maria Alessandra Umiltà we showed that when we look at a cut in the canvas by Lucio Fontana we activate the motor areas that govern the actions of our hand. It is ‘as if ‘, through simulation, the art work also told us something about how the artist realized it.

There is another aspect that distinguishes embodied simulation guided by the immersion in the worlds of fiction related to art, from when this functional mechanism is activated by the situations of daily life. Indeed, artistic fiction is often stronger than real life to evoke our attentional, emotional and empathetic involvement. Why? Perhaps because during aesthetic experience we can temporarily afford to lose contact with our everyday reality. We release new energies and put them at the service of a new dimension that, paradoxically, may prove more vivid than the prosaic reality of everyday life.The aesthetic experience of works of art, rather than a suspension of disbelief, can be interpreted as a kind of ” liberated simulation”. When we read a novel, look at a work of art, see a play or go to the movies, our embodied simulation is freed from the burden of having to model our presence on the demands of everyday life. We approach art from a safe distance by which our openness to the world gets magnified. In a way, to appreciate art means to let the world go in order to more fully grasp it. Through a state where our attention is focused on the narrated virtual world, we can fully use our simulative resources, momentarily abandoning our defensive barriers against the real world.

Movement, touch, and proprioception are co-involved every time we turn our eyes to the world. Hence, I think we need to profoundly rethink the relationship between symbolic expression and aesthetic understanding. We must look at aesthetics from a perspective centered on the human dimension and its neurobiological substrates, focusing on the relationship between the brain-body and the world. To know more and better the mechanisms underlying the production and reception of various forms of human symbolic expression, highlighting the performative and sensory-motor aspects, can help us to better communicate and to better structure the spaces of the use of images. This opens up new research perspectives for optimizing the distribution of images, as well as to their use. This goes from communication techniques and web design to the design of museums and exhibition spaces.

How does online – thus delayed – communication integrate with this model of simulation -incarnation-resonance, in which the body is (or at least it seems) absent, with the exception of sight and hearing? The focus of your latest research on film and gaze can be also referred the phenomenon of videos, which today statistics show to be much quicker vehicles of information transmission and communication than other language systems (text and static images)?

 

We live in an era characterized by what Mark Hansen called ‘technomimesis’. The new media call for forms of sharing and imitation extremely powerful and increasingly linked to images portraying the human body. More of written communication, thanks to social networks are especially images and movies to spread so ‘viral’.
The introduction of new digital technologies overthrows language from the role played so far as the dominant carrier of the experience of reality, putting a new bodily, non linguistic visuality at the center of our experience of the world. The post-modern technological modernization, paradoxically brings the body back to the center of the relationship instaurabile with a ‘reality’ increasingly mediated by digital interactive visual representations. The growing autonomy of the material digital world colonizes more and more our imagination, while outsourcing our memories.
The immediacy of reality that every day we contemplate from screens that follow us everywhere takes the place of our imagination.
According to Walter Benjamin, the film gives rise to a new region of consciousness that refers to a novel use of our mimetic faculties, in which vision from purely optical becomes haptic and multimodal. In the last five years, I started a collaboration with Michele Guerra, film scholar at the University of Parma, which led us to study the moving images with a multidisciplinary approach, combining film and media theory and neuroscience. These investigations and the theoretical assumptions that inspired them are the basis of our latest book “The Empathic Screen”. The goal is not to replace the human sciences with neuroscience, but only to offer a new level of description that can enrich our knowledge.

One of the claims made in the book is that the line between what we call “real” and the imaginary and imagined world is much less clear than you might think. Thanks to embodied simulation seeing and imagine seeing, acting and imagine acting, and experiencing an emotion imagine it, are all based on the activation of partly identical brain circuits. The same applies to stimuli conveyed by means of mass communication media such as video screens, computers, tablets or mobile phones. These new media, in addition, offer new ways of interaction, requiring our active bodily, thanks to the touch-screen technology. The Go-pro Cams, in addition, allow new levels of ‘almost perfect’ subjective shootings. All these technological innovations pose new theoretical questions and suggest new empirical explorations.

A curiosity at this point: artificial neural networks (mathematical models that simulate the interconnection between elements defined artificial neurons) have been in the past decades under study in computer science and technology, only to suffer a stop and be reactualized today. The discovery of mirror neurons may give a further boost to this phenomenon?

 

Mirror neurons offer no explanation to everything. Neural networks historically have tried to replicate the operation mode of real neurons, but they were based on many assumptions that were very distant from the perspective of embodied cognition. These assumptions have not found empirical support.
I doubt that these networks actually work as our brain. This skepticism stems from the belief that you do not fully understand the brain if you turn it into a computational machine and especially if it is separated from the body. The mechanisms of mirroring and embodied simulation, however, can inspire the functioning of algorithms that use corporeality as an index. I think that content expressed with bodily metaphors and references to pragmatic-performative aspects are more likely to be understood and memorized. I think that communication theory and its practice will be affected by this new model of perception and interpersonal relationships.

Changing the subject now, one last question: the social platforms – with their tuning (even simplistic) in terms of quickly shared public opinion – can be seen as a sort of extension of our perceptual systems?

 

Our brain / body system has evolved over millions of years to interact with the physical world populated by inanimate objects and other living bodies. The relationship with the “artificial” representation of the real, from the Paleolithic frescoes of Lascaux onwards, has traditionally made a marginal portion of our relationship with reality. Since the invention of writing, we are only indirectly aware of increasingly large portions of what we consider real, through the mediation of linguistic-narrative representations. In the contemporary age we witness a reversal of the proportions between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’. For millions of men and women the relationship with reality ever more takes place through its media representation. This applies to the news or reality shows, as well as to social networks. For a growing number of people it is real only what mass communication media represent. The sense of what is real and what is not may be profoundly affected. This can lead to a profound change of value systems, to also affect the behavior of individuals.
Studies show, for example, the erroneous perception of beliefs that we take to be widely shared by the public.
These errors of assessment result in part from being immersed in a world of shared information with people very much like us, almost all of them chosen by us. The neurosciences, having the ability to deconstruct and understand the ways in which the body interface with the ‘real’ world and with the digitized one, can reveal, as it were, the game, providing tools to design new contexts and new mediations and, perhaps in a futuristic future, even the bricks with which to build them. I think that in the future neuroscience can tell us a lot on all these issues.

***

At the end of this incredible conversation, we want to say goodbye not only with a big thank you to Professor Gallese for the time that he has spent, but also with an invitation to our visitors to the reading of his book, The empathic screen. Cinema and Neuroscience, really interesting and original.
In it, a “neuroscientist and a film theorist analyzing a number of masterpieces (Notorious, Persona, The Shining, The Silence of the Lambs) from the type of involvement that these films have on the body of the spectators and the forms of simulation produced by the movements of the camera and by editing. (…) The goal is to understand the multiple mechanisms of resonance that constitute one of the great secrets of the film and reflect on the power of the moving image, which in ever more new and pervasive part of our every day lives.” Best regards. Indeed, enjoy!

Read the Interview in Italian

Iscrizione a MEMEnto6, la newsletter di 6MEMES

Vuoi seguire i nostri MEMES?
Iscriviti a MEMEnto6, la newsletter del blog 6Memes.

VOGLIO ISCRIVERMI