Rock Art Research

Vol. 30 No. 1 (2013)
Published : May 21, 2013


Ahmed Achrati (1)

(1) Howard County Community College, United States
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This article explores possible links between the mirror neurons system and rock art. After a brief review of existing neurophysiological research on rock art, the article describes the mirror neurons system and examines its role in imitation and empathy. It then investigates how empathy affects the representation of animals in rock art. It advances the hypothesis that the depiction of individual animals in profile is indicative of a kinaesthetic empathy, expressing primarily the perception of the animal’s bulk, weight, musculature, movement and distance from the beholder. By contrast, frontal representation of an animal figure reveals multiple points of possible sensory response to the animal, entailing a multivalent empathy. This empathetic multivalence of frontal representations also indicates increased engagement of the mirroring system, which, in encoding the observed actions of a frontally positioned animal, triggers a somatosensory process that places a higher threshold on artistic motor skills and kinematic congruence. The demand for kinematic congruence is further heightened by the artist’s psychological need to avoid a failed drawing, which may also implicate the inhibitory action of the mirroring system. This modulation of artistic empathy through the excitatory and inhibitory actions of the mirror system, the article concludes, may be responsible for the scarcity of frontal depictions of animals in the rock art record.