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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Feeling Beauty

--  By Tom Phillips

What is art for?  Does it have any use at all?  Does it give us anything beyond pleasure, or a momentary release from the cares of life? 

These questions have been around for thousands of years.  Today, there is a burst of renewed interest in them, because they have moved from the realm of philosophical speculation to the solider ground of scientific research.   Here the answers are confirmed not just by experience, but by pictures of brain activity.   And these pictures show us that the experience of beauty is central not just to human pleasure, but to human growth. 

In Feeling Beauty -- The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience,  G. Gabrielle Starr weaves together the language of neuroscience with a deep understanding of the arts, and makes a convincing case that by taking us out of ordinary experience, the arts offer us a window into ourselves – what we are, and what we can become. 


The brain scans show without a doubt that powerful aesthetic experiences are not like ordinary feelings.  Aesthetic pleasure involves wonder, awe, discomfort, even fear – and the most powerful experiences take us beyond our ordinary emotional capacity.  In an  analysis of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” she traces how the poem takes our sensual imagination to its limits, then hits us with a flat, astonishing proposition that by then we are unable to resist – “Truth is beauty, beauty truth."  

Aesthetic experience involves a unique complex of brain areas, linking emotions to imagination, memory, and our sense of self.   In the grip of powerful aesthetic experience, we are able to revalue our selves and our world – to see things differently.   The particular neural architecture is known, not very poetically, as the “default mode network.”   This is a network that is active when we are awake and at rest – in daydreaming mode, musing over who we are, where we’re going, scanning the universe for our destination.  When we are engaged in any task, this network is normally suppressed – but surprisingly, in the grip of aesthetic experience, it becomes active again.  Our whole self is engaged in the encounter with beauty.  

In a critical tour de force, Starr shows how it can happen in encounters with Ovid and Keats, Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock, Beethoven and bluegrass music.  She concludes that aesthetic experience is about “newly created and reconfigured value, about something that wasn’t there in the same way before, something that was created in the brain and leaves traces in how we go forward.”

Onward and upward, with the arts.   

 -- Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips