Cognitive Neuroscience Lurking in Art

What can neuroscientists learn from the masters and other artists?

Oct 19, 2015
Kerry Grens

WIKIPEDIA; M.C. ESCHER, "MAGIC MIRROR"Eric Altschuler has been staring at mirrors. Specifically, those of van Eyck, Caravaggio, Parmigianino, Escher, and other painters. The Temple University professor and his colleague V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, are on the hunt for novel ways that artists have presented reflections, as a means of seeking out potentially new modes of therapy.

Ramachandran and Altschuler have pioneered methods of using a mirror to alleviate phantom limb pain and other conditions. A patient sits at the side of the mirror with, say, his right arm reflected in front of the glass. The patient peeks around the corner to view the reflection as if he were looking at his left arm—a setup Ramachandran and Altschuler call the parasagittal reflection.

In their cataloging of mirrors in art, presented as a poster at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting held in Chicago this week, Altschuler and Ramachandran found that for 500 or more years, painters presented frontal plane reflections (a straight-on view in the mirror). It wasn’t until 1946 that something different—the parasagittal view, in particular—appeared in fine art: in M.C. Escher’s lithograph, “Magic Mirror,” Altschuler and Ramachandran reported at SfN. The viewer has an angled view at a ball reflected in a mirror, with an identical ball positioned symmetrically behind the mirror—very similar to the concept of mirror therapy.

Eric Altschuler demonstrating mirror therapyERIC ALTSCHULER

“Magic Mirror” was produced 50 years before Ramachandran first published on mirror therapy, and even then Ramachandran was unaware of the artwork. “Escher was very clever,” Altschuler told The Scientist, noting that perhaps there are other novel approaches just waiting to be discovered in paintings. “If we want to be making the next great neuroscience discovery, should we go to the art museum?”

The duo found other principles of neuroscience in art, such as the perception of disembodiment that comes from seeing a piece of one’s self—a hand, for example—reflected in a convex mirror. The hand’s reflection presents it as much larger than the person knows it to be, creating the sense that one is disconnected to the limb.

One painting in particular has Altschuler intrigued: a 1973 piece by Salvidor Dalí, entitled “Painting Gala From the Back.” The artist sits behind his subject, who is viewing herself in a mirror, which reflects both the sitter and the painter. “There must be a great neuroscience discovery in this,” said Altshuler, “but I can’t find one yet.”