Mon, Jun 7, 2010
Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce. Women are drawn to more masculine male faces when they are ovulating. When asked, people say they will pay good money for a sweater worn by George Clooney, but a third less if it has been sterilised. The great violinist Joshua Bell made only $32 when he busked in the Washington subway. In front of Vermeer’s painting The Woman Taken in Adultery, people had life-changing experiences. When they were told it was a fake, painted by the supreme forger Han van Meegeren, they didn’t.
Strange stories and exotic insights emerge from the frontiers of contemporary psychology. These are from How Pleasure Works, a new book by Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale. They are all about how and why humans value and enjoy things, from the trivial (Tabasco sauce, Clooney’s sweater) to the exalted (Bell and Vermeer). They are also about the increasingly urgent scientific attempt to explain art, the supreme human achievement. This, perhaps more than anything else, evades scientific analysis.
“A question I can’t answer,” Bloom tells me, “is, where does the creative impulse come from? What is the nature of artistic genius? What distinguishes Vermeer from van Meegeren? I don’t think we know. I think we are barely asking the question. We are going great in some respects, but when it comes to the big questions people ask, like ‘Where does Picasso come from?’, we just don’t know.
Nevertheless scientists hope that two recent developments will help us to find out where art comes from. The first is evolutionary psychology (EP). This is based on the idea that our Darwinian descent — from bacteria to apes to us — must explain much, if not everything, about how our minds work. This is the only grand theory psychologists have ever had.
The second is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which shows in real time what goes in the brain when we have certain experiences. It is at the centre of neuroscience, the current hot science. Thanks to fMRI, put “neuro” in front of anything — neuromarketing, neuroeconomics — and there is money to be made. Popular books inspired by these new sciences of the human mind pour from the presses. They often make excessive claims. For example, much was made of the claim that great artists such as Mozart are created by working for exactly 10,000 hours. Well, of course, Mozart worked at music for 10,000 hours. That was because he was Mozart. If I had done it, I would still be a musical klutz. The mystery of Mozart remains intact. Or, as Bloom puts it: “Ten thousand hours may be a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition. I could play basketball for 10,000 hours and I still wouldn’t be Michael Jordan.”
Both EP and fMRI have huge and potentially fatal shortcomings. EP makes an assumption that there is a clear, Darwinian line leading from the first living cell to the human mind. Many creatures have brains, but only humans seem to have minds that can reflect on this fact and have big experiences such as art and religion. We cannot know this, because we have no idea how the mind works, how the brain produces it. Once the brain physically came into existence, the mind may have evolved through non-Darwinian means. It certainly often seems to behave against its own evolutionary best interests — by, for example, using contraception or being gay.
“I think there is an occupational hazard for us,” says Bloom — who calls himself a “card-carrying evolutionary psychologist” — “of underestimating the complexities of the mind, the richness. This shows up particularly in domains such as sex and food, where some psychologists have missed out extraordinary complexity and interests in these things.”
The fMRI scanners show things happening, but we don’t know how to interpret them. Professor Lawrence Parsons, at Sheffield University, put Jarvis Cocker and some tango dancers inside his machine and scanned their brains while they performed. (The dancers were able to move their feet while lying inside because Parsons put a board under them.) This gave him lots of information, but he admits he doesn’t know what it means. “We’re not at the point where we can answer these big interpretive questions,” he told me. “There is this overcomplicated thing [the mind] that we barely understand because we’re only at the beginning. We’re still looking at the circuit diagrams.”
So given that they may well be completely wrong, what are the scientists saying about art? Music seems to be the art they most focus on. It is the most mysterious and fundamental. Steven Pinker, the psychologist and cognitive scientist, has said music was an accidental by-product of language. Working in the same disciplines, Daniel Levitin disputes this, saying music may be our peacock’s tail, an example of runaway sexual selection. A female peacock likes a male with a tail, then a bigger tail, until, finally, Beethoven pops out.
The neurologist Oliver Sacks points out that musicians’ brains are physically different. They are larger in motor, auditory and visuospatial areas of the cerebellum, and the corpus callosum — the great rope that joins the two halves of the brain — is enlarged. Whether this is so because they make music, or they make music because this is so, is unknown.
Meanwhile, the neurologist VS Ramachandran has come up with eight “laws of artistic experience”. The most curious of these is the “peak shift effect”. If you can persuade a rat to prefer a rectangle to a square (it can be done), then it will go on to prefer ever more long and skinny — more rectangular — rectangles. This seems to explain our love of caricature and art that is more real than the real.
And so on. The problem with all these explanations is that they do not directly address the feeling of being moved by a work of art itself. My experience of a Vermeer is just that: my experience. And telling me why it happens is not the same as saying what it is.
Read The Full Article Here: How Pleasure Works