A Gesture in Kind

Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Paradise

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.[1]  As neuroesthetics pioneer Semir Zeki puts it: ‘How such creations can arouse aesthetic experiences can only be fully understood in neural terms.’[2]  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.[3]  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.[4]  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.’[5]  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’.[6]  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?[7]  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?


[2] Ibid.

[3] 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.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.


  • Before making his way to St Andrews, Dave played the part of a peasant and a street sweep at a Renaissance Festival and Walt Disney World respectively. However, his interest in performance and communication were also put to use for over a decade as a corporate communications trainer in Charlotte, NC where he and his wife, Carrie, lived before moving overseas. Since then, they’ve welcomed their daughters Molly and Abigail into the world and Dave completed his M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. At the moment he’s busy researching the theological significance of embodied expression in pursuit of a PhD from St Andrews.

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  1. says: Debby Topliff

    Thank you for pointing out this important research and the marvelous way we are connected within mind, body, and spirit. I suspect this insight can lead to new modalities of art as contributing to emotional and even physical healing

    1. says: Dave Reinhardt

      You’re welcome, Debby! Do you have thoughts about what some of these new modalities might be?

      1. says: Debby Topliff

        Studies on the amygdala, the pre-rational processing center of scent and the emotional control center of the brain, show that our emotional responses, especially to incidents too traumatic for us to accept and understand in the moment, are stored within various parts of the body where they can cause unbalance and disease. The amygdala can be seen, in a simplified sense, as the old-fashioned librarian of the body. At a later date scents can call up emotional memories and bring them to the surface for resolution. A resurgence in the healing arts of essential oils (think of the gifts of the magi, the anointing at Bethany, the instructions in James 5) which is often combined with color-therapy has yielded amazing results. The arts also penetrate our minds and memories, effecting our bodies.

        From a different angle, there is much to be pondered in comparing the sensual setting of Jesus’ restoration of Peter in John 21 around the “anthrakian” with the similar charcoal fire setting of Peter’s denial in John 18. Jesus takes Peter back to “the scene of the crime” and evokes sight, sound, smell, touch to withdraw from Peter every sting of his betrayal, and then helps Peter grow into his new position of grace by feeding (taste) him fish and bread.

        1. says: Dave Reinhardt

          That’s really interesting, Debby! I hadn’t thought about the sensual similarity between Peter’s denial and his reinstatement. The study featured above focuses primarily on the visual, but our lived experience tells us that each of our senses can have a profound impact on our thoughts and emotions. It does seem reasonable to think that Jesus, having created humanity, having become man, and having been the master teacher, would have understood the power of the senses and utilized them in his teaching.

          Thanks for the response.

  2. says: Cole Matson

    I know that studies have shown that behaviour can be affected when subjects are “primed” by reading stories (e.g., they make more compassionate decisions when they read about a person acting compassionately – although the effects wear off after a certain amount of time). Do you know of any studies that show that this sympathetic mirroring response affects behaviour, or that reading stories creates a sympathetic mirroring response?

    1. says: Dave Reinhardt

      Good question, Cole. I’m only just discovering the field of neuroesthetics myself, so, no, I don’t know offhand of studies that link the reading of stories to compassionate behaviour. If any other readers do know of this, I’d love to hear from you!
      Given that there does seem to be a link between viewing action in a painting and activity in the motor areas of the brain, I’m interested in knowing if there is even greater activity when someone sees an action played out in front of them—i.e. in the theatre. If so, it might raise the question, ‘Does theatre hold even greater potential than visual art to shape a viewers everyday action?’

      1. says: Cole Matson

        And that’s assuming that the temporary sympathetic mirroring response in the brain is powerful enough to affect action!

  3. says: Denny Kinlaw


    “The value that the observer attributes to the object that is grasped can be
    pivotal for selecting a possible behavioral response. Mirror neurons[… ]have been suggested to play a crucial role in the understanding of action goals…and to shape the behavioral responses of the observer.” (PNAS 2.4.12)

    Placing “value” at the crux of observation and action seems to be the kind of scientific softball theologians often pine for in the neuro-aesthetic discussion. Here it would seem the grace of a “renewed” mind could be seen not simply as an advantageous mirror-response but a perfection of the neural-determined behavior that often concludes the scientific approach. In either approach (theological or empirical) the impetus is on the viewer’s value system more so than IQ which is significant.

    Perhaps more interesting to me is the potential for using neuro-aesthetic mirror-neuron response data to provide an “empirically” based system in which art is measured no longer by the subjective terminology of good/bad, powerful/banal, but on the scale of “neurologically beneficial”/”neurologically harmful”.

    Enter Orwell.

    1. says: Dave Reinhardt

      Thanks, Denny, for highlighting the significance of attributing value in this neuroesthetic conversation. Your final comment about the potential of establishing ‘an “empirically” based system’ of art valuation reminded me of the words of Semir Zeki. In his statement on neuroesthetics he makes the claim that, even before science was able to evaluate and measure neurological responses to art, talented artists, like Michelangelo, ‘instinctively understood the common visual and emotional organization and workings of the brain’ and used that knowledge to produce art which is emotive.

      It may be possible that further neuroesthetic research (and a broader acceptance of the findings of this research) may enable us to develop the kind of ‘objective’ evaluation of art you mention. However, I find it interesting that, even now, the research suggests that certain works of art generally identified as great, tend to trigger significant responses in our ‘visual and emotional brains’ and this commonality, in turn, reinforces the biblical idea that all people are created in the image of the same God.

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