Unformatted text preview: lel activity of many quasi-independent
modules. Even our visual response to an object isn’t a simple onestep process—it involves multiple stages or levels of processing. And
this is especially true when we talk about something as complex as
aesthetic response . . . it is sure to involve many stages of processing
and many layers of belief. In the case of Picasso I would argue that
the “gut level” reaction—the “a-ha” jolt—may indeed exist in everyone’s brain, caused, perhaps, by early limbic activation. But then in
191 the internet and the university
most of us higher brain centers kick in, telling us, in effect, “Oops!
That thing looks so distorted and anatomically incorrect that I had
better not admit to liking it.” Likewise, a combination of prudery and
ignorance might have vetoed the Victorian art critics’ reaction to
voluptuous bronzes—even though neurons at an earlier stage are firing away, signaling peak shifts. Only when these subsequent layers of
denial are peeled off can we begin to enjoy a Picasso or a Chola.
Ironically, Picasso himself derived much of his inspiration from
“primitive” African art.
5. In my book Phantoms in the Brain I suggested that many of
these laws of aesthetics—especially peak shift—may have powerfully
influenced the actual course of evolution in animals, an idea that I
call the “perceptual theory of evolution.” A species needs to be able
to identify its own species in order to mate and reproduce, and to do
so it uses certain conspicuous perceptual “signatures”—not unlike
the gull chick pecking the stick with three stripes. But because of the
peak shift effect (and ultranormal stimuli), a mate might be preferred that doesn’t “resemble” the original. In this view the giraffe’s
neck grew longer not merely to reach tall acacia trees but because giraffes’ brains are wired to automatically show greater propensity to
mate with more “giraffe-like” mates, i.e., mates with the giraffe trait
of longer necks. This would lead to a progressive caricaturization of
descendants in phylogeny. It also predicts less variation in the externally visible morphology and colors in creatures which don’t have
well-developed sensory systems. (e.g., cave dwellers) and less florid
variations of internal organs which cannot be seen.
This notion is similar to Darwin’s idea of sexual selection—i.e.,
peahens preferring peacocks with larger and larger tails. But it is different in three respects. My argument, unlike Darwin’s, doesn’t apply only to secondary sexual characteristics. It argues that many mor192 the artful brain
phological features and labels identifying species (rather than sexual)
differences might propel evolutionary trends in certain directions.
Although Darwin invokes “liking larger tails” as a principle in sexual
selection, he doesn’t explain why this happens. I suggest that it results from the deployment of an even more basic psychological law
wired into our brai...
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- Summer '09
- artful brain