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« Art in Santa Fe | Main | Chaos of History: Art in 1910 »

November 17, 2002

Brain Research


I seem to have suddenly been reading a lot about scientific research that has implications for the arts. I suspect that people much hipper to the state of brain research than I are way ahead of me on this, but—vowing bravely to ignore the likelihood that I am about to re-announce the invention of the electric light bulb—let me share my tiny thoughts on these matters.

The story that got me going on this was Sharon Begley’s “Science Journal” column in the November 15 Wall Street Journal. She describes the infant science of neuroeconomics, which studies functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of volunteers’ brains during economic experiments to see what is going on inside the old noggin. One conclusion the neuroeconomists seem to have established is that the anticipation of monetary rewards stimulates the same portions of the brain that fire up in anticipation of pleasurable food, sex or drugs. I assume it is legitimate to assume that the same mechanism is at work with other sources of aesthetic pleasure. If this is so, it may explain patterns of behavior one can observe in the arts. For example, according to Ms. Begley:

The brain seizes on even the slimmest evidence of pattern. After only a couple of repetitions of some event, the anterior cingulate begins to fire in anticipation of another: as a result, we’re convinced that a stock that beat profit forecasts two quarters in a row will do it a third time. And if it doesn’t? Then neurons in emotion processing regions fire like crazy, generating a sense of anxiety and dread, researchers at the Duke University in Durham, N.C., report. Result: When a nice, reliable stock misses its earnings target by even a little, investors abandon ship in a fury. Often, the longer a stock has persisted, the worse the beating, because the longer a pattern has persisted the more alarmed the brain gets when [the pattern is] broken.

This mechanism might explain why, only a decade or so after his death, the paintings of John Singer Sargent—for years one of the most fashionable painters in the world—could be had for only a few hundred dollars. He had been a highly "reliable” artist for 30 years, and yet, with the seismic shift in art world fashions of the 1920s, he became suddenly déclassé. Full of possibly the same anxiety and dread described by Ms. Begley, his collectors bailed out en masse.

John Singer Sargent's "Nonchaloir" Suffering from Anxiety and Dread?

Ms. Begley also lays out a mechanism that might make collectors or art buffs treasure the adventuresome and novel in art:

The [brain’s] reward circuit runs on the neurochemical dopamine. We get a dopamine surge when we anticipate a niche, healthy 4% return on a money-market fund. But dopamine neurons get extra juiced when a long shot comes in—and the addictive nature of dopamine makes us willing to take financial risks for those long shots.

Even the popular preference—easily observable at your local cineplex—for happy endings appears to be literally hard-wired into our brains, according to "The Financial Page" column in The New Yorker’s November 11 issue:

When people assess a past experience, they pay attention above all to two things: how it felt at the peak and whether it got better or worse in the end. A mild improvement—even if it’s an improvement from “intolerable” to “pretty bad”—makes the whole experience seem better, and a bad ending makes everything seem worse.

The same issue of the New Yorker also suggests—in the form of an anecdote in Tad Friend’s story “What’s So Funny?”—that the taste for low physical humor may not simply be the result of watching too many Three Stooges episodes in childhood:

The researcher Roger Fouts reported in 1997 that Washoe, a chimpanzee he had taught to sign, once urinated on him while riding on his shoulders, then signed “Funny”—touching its nose—and snorted.



P.S. If no one has done so yet, I want to be the first to proclaim the new science of Neuroaesthetics. You know, we could set up a professional society and hold our first conference (in Hawaii, say) and see if anybody shows up. Give me a call and we'll talk about it.

posted by Friedrich at November 17, 2002


Reinventing the wheel or not, this is a fascinating subject review, and certainly one which I had not come across yet!

The financial analogy makes sense; it is akin to the lemming principle. When a stampede of nervous selling starts, it is hard to resist the temptation to join in the flight to the cliffs. I am not as convinced by the drop in value of, say, Sargent. There is certainly mass movement in art, but in that case, it seems more like the eternal cycle of boredom. As soon as some new "cool" thing has been "discovered", there is a dramatic drop of interest in the classic. The classic comes back in time, when the boredom cycle moves around again. See J.S. Bach, W. Mozart, Gauguin (although there was never a dip there; he started as nothing and grew).

I suppose, though, once an artist has moved into the realm of the ridiculous value, where their art is bought and sold like stock, a drop in perceived value could create such a neuroaesthetic (great word!) panic.

Posted by: pinax on November 17, 2002 2:30 AM

Someone has set up something like an Institute of Neuroaesthetics. I had a note about it here, somehwere... [sound of rustling through stacks and notes on desk; crashing sound; exasperated middle-aged-memory moans]... Hmmm, I'll get back to you about it sometime soon...

Posted by: Michael on November 17, 2002 10:27 AM

Dang. Beaten to the punch AGAIN! Well, I still think the idea of a scientific conference in Hawaii is a cracker of an idea. We could study the effects of excessive consumption of tropical drinks on the perceptions of an island paradise. We could call it "Boondoggle 2003." Come on, what do you say?

Posted by: Friedrich Blowhard on November 17, 2002 6:39 PM

I say, all I need here is a ticket to Hawaii!

I reckon I could speak semi-unintelligibly in a semi-convincing manner indefinitely, plied with a sufficiancy of tropical drinks...

Sure I could!

Posted by: pinax on November 17, 2002 9:36 PM

I*thought* this sounded familiar.

The Journal of Neuro-Aesthetic Theory can be found at

ArtBrain being the low-brow way of sayin' Neuro-Aesthetic, I guess. It's run by a guy I know, Warren Neidich, who is, as you'd expect, crazy. (hey, Warren!)

Posted by: gregdotorg on November 19, 2002 5:34 PM

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