I was sitting in a restaurant having dinner, and across the room I noticed a couple having an intense argument. They couldn’t be heard, but their body language made it obvious. I began to feel curiously uncomfortable, and my date philosophized what a fundamental weakness it was that we were so susceptible to the emotions of other people. Wow, was she wrong!
Why did I respond like that to the fighting couple? It turns out that when we watch someone else engage in almost any activity, there are specialized mirror-neurons in our brains that light up as if we ourselves were doing that very thing. This is why we instinctively smile at someone who is smiling at us, why laughter (and yawning) is contagious, and – most importantly for the purposes of this discussion – how art works.
Let us assume that human emotions are universal. Art, then, is based on the idea that we intuitively understand an emotion being portrayed by someone else. So, when a particularly talented person records an emotional state (be it painted, sculpted, sung, acted, written, danced, or played on an instrument) we all have the capability to feel that emotion because of mirror neurons.
But what lends this process intoxicating mystery, complexity, and hypnotic subtlety, is that we all respond to a work of art differently, based on our personalities and life experiences. I personally find that my joy is augmented, my sorrow diminished, or my anxiety cathartically released, when it fuses with that being expressed in the artwork.
My favorite example of this is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (big call, but this may be my favorite book ever – if you don’t know it, go read it!) I had recently finished it and passed it along to my partner. She was close to the end when I said to her, ‘Don’t you just love Caleb? He is so agonizingly aware of his inner darkness, and strives so hard to transcend it?’ (or something like that…) To this, she replied, ‘Ah, yes, indeed. But what of Aaron, with his encumbered burden of crushing expectation?’ I was floored by our completely different takes on the same novel. Except for a fleeting moment, I hadn’t empathized with Aaron because Caleb had resonated so immediately and personally with me. I felt we had a lot in common. (I’m sure you’ve intensely identified with characters in books or on screen. It’s why dramas/rom-coms etc. work.)
East of Eden made me realize the infinite capacity of art to illuminate the human experience. Most of the time, we needn’t analyze this process, we can just experience it (unless, like me, analyzing heightens your enjoyment.)
The next time you encounter a piece of music – or any work of art – you might ask yourself, ‘What was the artist feeling when they created this? And what were they trying to make the audience feel?’ Or simply, ‘What does this make me feel?’ That can open up a whole new world by itself.