In this excerpt from Memory in Art: A BIT of the Memory Process edited by Suzanne Nalbantian, Paul M. Matthews and James L. McClelland, David Freedberg, an art historian investigating the neural bases of empathy, draws on recent neuroscientific research to explore one of the great masterpieces of fifteenth-century Flemish painting, Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. Freedberg connects memory to the direct and indirect bodily responses to a work of art.
The traditional divide between the sciences and the humanities has long been seen in terms of the tension between naturalist and materialist views, on the one hand, and sensitivity to contextual and social constraints, on the other. But this conventional dichotomy collapses in the face of the evidence for the neural bases of empathetic engagement with works of art. We are in a better position to understand how prefrontal modulation of lower-level cerebral responses offers more flexible and inventive ways of thinking about the relationship between automaticity and experience. Recent research on memory confounds the separation of history and experience from the corporeal and psychological entailments of beholding a visual image, and a work of art in particular. The subject of embodied responses—much discussed in recent years by humanist scholars—now stands at the intersection of several fields within the cognitive neurosciences.