Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Changizi on what the arts reveal about the mind

TH: Stepping back for a moment, how do you conceive of the relationship between the arts and sciences in general? Are there genuine tensions there, or is that idea a mere artifact of history and institutional traditions and ruts?

MC: Often this question ends up about whether science can ever come to understand the arts. But I think this misses the more important arrow here. It’s not about how science can illuminate the arts, but the other way around . . . science is simple. Experimentally, we’re ingenious in our controls, but even so the complexity of stimuli is ridiculously simple. The number of parameters that we can play with is only a handful at a time. If some fantastically complex stimulus turns out to hit some sweet spot for us, our careful lab manipulations won’t ever find it.

But artists can find and have found these sweet spots. Not any artist alone, necessarily. But together they act as a cultural evolutionary process that finds sweet spots of stimuli that evoke humans in some way, and in ways science would never find. It’s the arts that discovered music, not science. In this light, the arts is a massive laboratory experiment of sorts. Not well-controlled in the usual lab sense. But one capable, in a sense, of making scientific discoveries. This is why, in my own research, I often use massive amounts of artistic stimuli as data. What have these cultural-artistic tendencies discovered? What does it tell us about the brain, or about the innate mechanisms we possess?
A few years ago I wrote a pair of posts that speak to this:

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