02 February, 2011

2 February - Art and Dopamine

LAUNCHPROJECTS - In Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer argues that art is a critical path to knowledge. Through the lives and discoveries of Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stavinsky, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Wolf, Lehrer highlights that "it is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will even know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness."

The Modern era was one of artistic struggle and hard-won innovation. It was a time when "the public wasn't used to free-verse poems or abstract paintings or plotless novels. Art was supposed to be pretty or entertaining, preferably both.... but the Modernists refused to give us what we wanted. In a move of stunning arrogance and ambition, they tried to invent fictions that told the truth." Throughout this fascinating book Lehrer cites examples of avant-garde artists forging the way to "truth" far before science and research caught up to their groundbreaking discoveries.

Lehrer describes in his chapter on Igor Stravinsky the initial public reaction to The Rite of Spring. Its "remorseless originality" incited a full-blown audience riot. Throughout the chapter Lehrer examines the neuroscience of this anger and hostility towards new sound, yet how ultimately it came to be manifestly adored (in 1940 it was included in Walt Disney's Fantastia). After a long discussion of dopamine, neurons, nerves, and our coticofugal system, we learn that that dopamine (the chemical source of our most intense emotions) is released only when our brainstem finds something amiss - a pattern broken, an unexpected sound. Although our survival instincts tell us to stick only to what we know, without dopamine we would feel no intense emotions, have no powerful reactions. Our lives would be lackluster, "all we would be left with would be a shell of easy consonance, the polite drivel of perfectly predictable music."

Dopamine's demand for experiential upheaval sheds new light on the critical importance of innovation in the arts. New art creates fury and hostility in audiences. Artistic breakthroughs can threaten belief systems people hold dear to their understanding of the art world and how it functions. I now understand, however, both the physiological desire for the status quo and our atavistic need for variation. "Works like The Rite jolt us out of this complacency. They literally keep us open-minded. If not for the difficult avant-garde, we would worship nothing but we already know...What separated Stravinsky from his rioting audience that night was his belief in the limitless possibilities of the mind. (The Right) is the sound of art changing the brain." Or as New York Times art critic Holland Carter wrote “confusion is demanding, but it’s a form of freedom, and it can be habit forming.”

The next time someone angrily tells me what "isn't art" I now have the mind-stretching drug dopamine on my side. I love neuroscience.

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