Motor perception and anatomical realism in Classical Greek art


Motor perception and anatomical realism in Classical Greek art

Anatomical realism in art starts with the Classical  Greeks (1). As put by the art historian Martin  Robinson, the Classical Greeks innovated the portrayal  of the 'rhythms of the living body — taut and relaxed  muscles, straight and bent limbs –instead of the  anatomical surface-patterns [of the earlier Archaic  Greeks]' (1). Why they started this is a mystery.

The recent finding that the motor cortex engages  in perception (2-4), however, sheds light upon this  problem. Evidence comes from various sources that  the motor cortex not only executes actions but sees  them.

•  Neurons in the F5 premotor cortex in monkeys  discharge both when performing a hand action and  also when seeing the same action done by another  monkey or their experimenter (2).

•  The patterns of motor evoked potentials in  people's hand muscles during an action are also  evoked by transcranial stimulation when people  look at the same action done by another (3).

•  PET imaging detects activation in the caudal part  of the left inferior frontal gyrus of the motor cortex  when people look at hand actions (4).

•  This link between motor action and perception also  applies to the movements of facial expressions:  similar electromyographic (EMG) activations  occur when people look at facial expressions as  when they make them (5). 460-BC

This link between perception and the motor cortex,  changes how we understand the aesthetic of ana- tomical realism. Presently, realism is understood in  terms of artists' capturing visual likeness — and thus  surface similarity. The above research opens up the  possibility that realism might also result from artists'  capturing the motor look (through accurately repre-  senting its muscle tautness and pose) of a body in  action (or state of rest). Thus while Archaic Greek  and other artists might have sought to stimulate the  look of a body as recognized by the viewer's visual  cortex, Classical Greek artists went further and sought  to stimulate the viewer's motor cortex and so give  them a sensation of a living body. It was to do this  that they learnt how to detail the body not only in  surface terms (as before) but also anatomical ones  and what art historians call the 'rhythms of the living  body'.

This proposal makes a strong prediction. If Classical  Greek artists, but not Archaic ones, sought realism  which activated the motor cortex, then their works  should also activate the motor cortex of modem  viewers. This should be detectable with fMRI or  PET brain scanners by comparing brain activation in  response to Archaic and Classical works.

One would further predict that good artists (both  ancient and modem) discover ways to heighten the  sensation of movement in a body and so the activation  of the motor cortex. Thus anatomical real works  should stimulate it even more than real bodies. For  instance, most of us are familiar with how the work  of Auguste Rodin heightens the sensation of move-  ment and posture. I would predict the greater a work  gives this aesthetic sense, the greater it activates  the motor cortex. The recent discovery that the motor  cortex engages in perception therefore could be important, not only for research into the nature of  aesthetics and the history of art but also into motor  perception and the functions of the motor cortex.


1.         M. Robinson. In: The History of Art Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1975), p. 175.

2.         G. Rizzolatti, L. Fadiga, V. Galese and L. Fogassi, Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions. Cogn Brain Res 3 (1996), pp. 131–141.

3.         L. Fadiga, L. Fogassi, G. Pavesi and G. Rizzolatti, Motor facilitation during action observation. J Neurophysiol 73 (1995), pp. 2608–2611.

4.         U. Dimberg, Facial reactions to facial expressions. Psychophysiology 19 (1982), pp. 643–647.

5.         G. Rizzolatti, L. Fadiga, M. Matelli et al., Localization of grasp representation in humans by PET, 1: Observation versus execution. Exp Brain Res 111 (1996), pp. 246–252.

Medical Hypotheses 51 1998 69-70 doi:10.1016/S0306-9877(98)90257-2