Perceiving art is known to elicit motor cortex activation in an observer's brain. This motor activation has often been attributed to a covert approach response associated with the emotional valence of an art piece (emotional reaction hypothesis). However, recent accounts have proposed that aesthetic experiences could be grounded in the motor simulation of actions required to produce an art piece and of the sensorimotor states embedded in its subject (embodied aesthetic hypothesis). Here, we aimed to test these two hypotheses by assessing whether motor facilitation during artwork perception mirrors emotional or motor simulation processes. To this aim, we capitalized on single pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation revealing a two-stage motor coding of emotional body postures: an early, non-specific activation related to emotion processing and a later action-specific activation reflecting motor simulation. We asked art-naïve individuals to rate how much they liked a series of pointillist and brushstroke canvases; photographs of artistic gardens served as control natural stimuli. After an early (150 ms) or a later (300 ms) post-stimulus delay, motor evoked potentials were recorded from wrist-extensor and finger muscles that were more involved in brushstroke- and pointillist-like painting, respectively. Results showed that observing the two canvas styles did not elicit differential motor activation in the early time window for either muscle, not supporting the emotional reaction hypothesis. However, in support of the embodied aesthetic hypothesis, we found in the later time window greater motor activation responses to brushstroke than pointillist canvases for the wrist-extensor, but not for the finger muscle. Furthermore, this muscle-selective facilitation was associated with lower liking ratings of brushstroke canvases and with greater empathy dispositions. These findings support the claim that simulation of the painter's movements is crucial for aesthetic experience, by documenting a link between motor simulation, dispositional empathy, and subjective appreciation in artwork perception.
Keywords: Artwork perception; Embodied aesthetics; Empathy; Motor simulation; Transcranial magnetic stimulation.
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