I recently read two articles that have gotten me thinking yet again about the connections between brains and art, specifically, how the mechanics of thinking and feeling interact with and influence our experience making or appreciating art. It’s a huge subject, but here are two articles that provide food for thought.
The first article is from the New Yorker, and can be found here. New Yorker article It’s worth reading on its own, but here’s a quick synopsis. There is an internet entrepreneur named Emerson Spartz. He’s young and brilliant, and has created lots of web-based businesses which have made him a lot of money. He is focusing now on creating sites whose sole purpose is to generate traffic, because he makes his money from ads and page views. Spartz has some concrete ideas about how to make something go viral. Use lists. Put large share buttons on a post. Keep sentences short. Very short.
All of this is fascinating, but where I got stuck was on his ideas about quality. Peter Berryman tells me that much of what he says is classic marketing from the last fifty years, and he suggested I read “The Hidden Persuaders,” written in the 1950s, which apparently covers the same ground. Still, it felt new to me.
Some quotes from Spartz. “Art is that which science has not yet explained.” “The ultimate barometer of quality is if it gets shared. If someone wants to toil in obscurity…that’s fine. Not everyone has to change the world.”
In short, science can ultimately explain art, and quantity of interest is the true indicator of quality.
He adds, “Imagine that the vocals are mediocre in an otherwise amazing song. What if you could have forty people record different vocals and then test it by asking thousands of people, “which one is best?”…you could improve every song on the radio.”
Art by focus group.
While I find something deeply troubling about what he says, I find myself challenged by his challenge to the whole, “I’ll just do what I want, and if someone likes, it, fine. If not, I’ll just be unknown.” Every artist walks some kind of personal line between simply doing their art and wanting to be heard, seen, or discovered. Where do I and the artists I know fit on this continuum?
The Dana Foundation published a great article about oxytocin and storytelling. Available here. Paul Zak, a well-known neuroscientist and researcher has been studying oxytocin for years. He says, “After years of experiments, I now consider oxytocin the neurologic substrate for the Golden Rule: If you treat me well, in most cases my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to treat you well in return. This is how social creatures such as humans maintain themselves as part of social groups: They play nice most of the time.” And oxytocin release and synthesis is at the heart of it. While the brain is never completely simple, this mechanism does seem to be enlightening.
While the implications are large, the article focused on the role of narrative, oxytocin and attention. The research examined oxytocin levels during short stories, and also looked at how those levels predicted empathy in response. The article also examined how stories work through something called “narrative transportation,” a term I hadn’t heard before. But, in contrast to the first article, Zak has this to say.
“Yet, even with millennia of practice, creating a great story is difficult. The emerging science of narrative can guide the art, but it cannot replace it. Humans are just too complex for an algorithm to generate art. And this is where the artist comes in. The narrator in Million Dollar Baby describes the heroine, Maggie’s, desire to be a boxer as “ … the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you. ” Artists who create worlds we cannot help but enter do the same.”
Where do algorithms meet art? What a world we live in.