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A Still Life Is Really a Moving Life: The Role of Mirror Neurons and Empathy in Animating Aesthetic Response
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In the Western aesthetic canon, the still life enjoys a certain prestige; its place in the museum and on the pages of the art history text is secure. Art aficionados who appreciate the character of Cezanne's apples help to ensure the lofty standing of the still life, as do students who admire the dewdrops still glistening on flowers picked and painted in the nineteenth century. For some students, however, it is difficult to understand such veneration. Despite the coaxing of dedicated art or museum educators, these students find apples nestled among drapery folds or translucent petals in a spring bouquet to be "boring." No matter how compelling the apples, how exquisitely rendered the blossoms, the still life is much too static, offering little more than the lifelessness of inanimate objects.

In my experience, even the most unappreciative of students can be persuaded to take a closer look at the inanimate—not by me or any strategies I may have devised but rather by classmates who have chosen still life paintings to serve as their personal metaphors. When shared during the courses I teach, these still lifes and their depicted objects acquire special meanings that are uniquely associated with the individual students who chose them. Reflecting on these class presentations, converted students offered these thoughts: "I related myself with the metaphors and the way my classmates felt"; and "What really stayed with me were the stories and the way my classmates connected with their paintings—how they connected to the art emotionally." Still another wrote: "I really liked the way their presentations went because I got to know [my classmates] a little bit more." Through these connections to still life and other genres, students explored their concepts of self within a community of others and began to experience the power of empathy.

Empathy, typically defined as "the intellectual or emotional identification with another," is a human capacity that, according to the noted neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese, allows us to understand the world of objects as well as the world of others. With the recent discovery of the mirror neuron system in the human brain, Gallese and other investigators around the world have identified the neurological basis of empathy. Subsequent studies of the remarkable properties of mirror neurons have yielded potent new understandings of the connections between empathy, objects of art and material culture, and intrapersonal relationships among human beings. Interestingly, these twenty-first-century findings tend to confirm a nineteenth-century connection between aesthetics and empathy, or more precisely, Einfuhlung ("in-feeling," or "feeling into"), a term coined by the philosopher Robert Vischer in 1873 to describe the projection of human feeling onto art objects. As Vischer himself described this phenomenon, "I transport myself into the inner being of an object and explore its formal character from within, as it were."

These insights, whether gained through the use of state-of-the-art brain imaging technologies or dusty volumes in a German library, have led Gallese to consider some interesting implications, such as, for example, those involving the still life—its bottles, apples, even its brushstrokes—and to claim that "a still life is really a moving life" when understood from the perspective of neuroscience. To explore this claim and its relevance to classroom and museum practices, this article examines the relationship between mirror neurons, empathy, and aesthetic response as it developed among preservice teachers who presented metaphorical works of art in two teacher education courses. A brief synopsis of research results highlighting the workings of the mirroring mechanism is presented and then applied to two student presentations: one given by Molly about Cezanne's Still Life with Apples (1893-94) and the other by Deborah about Fantin-Latour's White and Pink Mallows in a Vase (1895). The stories told by Molly, Deborah, and their classmates allow additional insights with implications for art and museum education.

Mirror Neurons: Some Research Results

Some fifteen years ago, what Gallese characterizes as a "strange class" of neurons was discovered, first in the monkey brain and then, soon after, in the human brain. Marco Iacoboni, a University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) neuroscientist, describes mirror neurons and the system they comprise as...

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