Nearly 450 years after his death, the artwork of Michelangelo is still making the news. This time as the subject of a study on Neuroesthetics. Having been around only about a decade, the discipline of neuroesthetics is based on the premise that ‘all art is created, executed and appreciated’ through the brain, and, as such, much can be learned about art, aesthetics and human aesthetic experience by studying the neurological activity in the brains of people as they engage a work of art. As neuroesthetics pioneer Semir Zeki puts it: ‘How such creations can arouse aesthetic experiences can only be fully understood in neural terms.’ While this might sound overly reductionistic, one merit of such study is its ability to provide measurable support to a common conjecture: viewing art truly has the capacity to affect people in bodily ways.
Earlier this year, neuroesthetic researchers conducted a study in which they asked people to observe Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Paradise—a scene of intense gesturing found in the Sistine Chapel—in order to test and see what effect, if any, such exposure had on the viewer’s corticomotor system—the system responsible for bodily movement. They discovered that simply observing Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam’s defensive wrist gesture resulted in activity in the viewer’s brain very much like what they would expect to see if the viewer were to have produced the gesture himself. Interestingly, little to no effect was observed when participants were shown a photograph depicting the same gesture. The conclusion: viewing certain artistic depictions of human action generates in the viewer what might be understood as a sympathetic mirroring response.
The researchers of this study point out that their investigation was preceded by another which showed ‘a similar pattern of brain activation…during processing of human motion at a conceptual level, such as during story comprehension.’ Studies such as these strongly suggest that engaging with works of art and hearing and comprehending stories are far from passive pursuits. More than mere cognitive exercises, they excite the body and are viscerally stimulating. If true, I believe the findings of this research could have profound theological implications.
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul exhorts his readers as follows: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind’. If the link between our minds and our bodies is closer than we intuitively think, is it possible that the renewal of both our minds and bodies might be effected as we engage art which—looking again to the writing of Paul for a standard—can be considered true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise? Further, given that the Gospels are largely narratives that include vivid descriptions of embodied action, is it possible that hearing and comprehending these stories might trigger sympathetic activity in our brains which, in conjunction with the activity of the Spirit of God, could result in our becoming more sympathetic to the mission of Christ and lead us to a more faithful, embodied pursuit of this mission?
 Battaglia, Fortunato, and David Freedberg. 2011. “Corticomotor Excitability During Observation and Imagination of a Work of Art.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 5: 79. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2011.00079. See also: Deen, Ben, and Gregory McCarthy. 2010. “Reading About the Actions of Others: Biological Motion Imagery and Action Congruency Influence Brain Activity.” Neuropsychologia 48 (6) (May): 1607–1615. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.01.028.