Baseball Toaster Aesthetics Blog
Conversations About Creativity
2007-05-29 11:07
by Ken Arneson

Cecil Vortex has an interesting series of interviews with artists about the creative process.

One interview is with a friend and fellow Alamedan, Jeff Raz:

Laughs are elusive. You can't head right for a laugh -- it'll go away. You can get people to cry. You can head right for a dramatic moment or a sad moment, and you can usually get it. But you can't head right for a laugh. You have to let the laugh come or sneak around the side. The same thing for inspiration. For me, just keep working, and if inspiration chooses to show up, great. I rather it not show up at 6:30 in the morning. It could've waited till 9. But the job is to write down the inspiration when it comes and know how to use it later.

Interesting Interview in Seed
2007-04-30 20:22
by Ken Arneson

In Seed Magazine, David Byrne and Daniel Levitin have an interesting conversation about music and neuroscience.

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Additional links:

Simulation theory of aesthetics

Two different kinds of attention

Why Do We Still Feel Suspense With Repeat Viewings?
2007-03-09 10:53
by Ken Arneson

Now we're talking. This is the kind of analysis I want see more of.

David Bordwell breaks down some previous non-neuro-based theories, and then gets into the true meat of the problem. He looks at how the brain processes information, to explain an artistic phenomenon we experience. In this case, Bordwell explores why we can see a suspenseful movie a second time, and still experience suspense.

I'll add one thing to the article: the concept of conditioning. Learning in the brain doesn't work like an on-off switch. It takes repetition for something to stick, for us to become conditioned to a stimulus, and to begin to expect it. So when we watch a film a second time, we're only slightly conditioned to the stimulus (the film), and so we can still be surprised. If you watch it a tenth time, or a twentieth, you're probably not going to feel very much suspense.

The very best works of art manage, somehow, to defeat the conditioning phenomenon. Great art gives you something surprising even after the twentieth viewing. That's very hard to do, which is why greatness is so rare.

2007-02-02 00:40
by Ken Arneson
Heroes Relationships Graphed
2007-01-31 21:10
by Ken Arneson

Ran across this; it's pretty cool:

Linky dinks
2007-01-07 09:41
by Ken Arneson

Steve Sailer on Malcolm Gladwell:

Third, what you can't systematically predict based on the past is The Next Big Thing. Audiences eventually get bored with what they liked in the past, but you can't tell when. And what you definitely can't tell from your database is what they'll start liking in the future.

How to be better at almost anything.

"Elegance is the simplicity found on the far side of complexity." (click on the pdf link here)

Laughter and cheering trigger mirror neurons.

Christopher Hitchens wonders why men are funnier than women.

A metaphor explaining how cognitive bias works.

A Heroes Physics Question: Why Isn't Gravity Polarized?
2006-12-03 20:50
by Ken Arneson

I wanted to expand on Mark's comments about Masi Oka's character on Heroes. Not so much about the performance or the plot, but the physics of it. (Spoilers ahead).

When Hiro gets sent back to the present just as he's about to kiss Charlie, it threw me for a loop. It seemed like such a cheap plot device: don't let Hiro fix everything just by going back in time. It bothered me. I kept pondering it.

Hiro describes his power as the ability to "bend time and space". That got me thinking about The Elegant Universe, a PBS series about string theory (watchable online). Einstein's theory of general relativity describes gravity as essentially being a bending/warping of space and time.

Einstein spent his last years trying to find a way to combine two of the fundamental forces of the universe, gravity and electromagnetism, under one unified theory. He did not succeed.

Gravity and electromagnetism may have some common underlying structure, but scientists are not sure how. For one thing, electromagnetism is way, way, way stronger than gravity. That may surprise some people, but think of it this way: if gravity had the same strength as magnetism, you'd need a magnet at least the size of the earth to lift a paper clip off the ground. Instead, all you need is a magnet the size of a dime.

So here's where Hiro's inability to control his power surprises me. To Hiro, time and space behave not like gravity, but like a magnet. It seems polarized somehow. You can take two magnets, use one to move the other, to push it one direction, or pull it in another. But if you want to take the north side of one magnet, and push it against the north side of another magnet, the magnets will push back. The more you try to push two poles of the same kind together, the stronger it repels you in the other direction.

So when Hiro tries to kiss Charlie, he is trying to change some thing that doesn't want to be changed, like two north poles being pushed together. The more he tries to push those things together, the stronger he gets repelled back to where he came from.

Here's the physics question that arises from this: if gravity and electromagnetism can be unified, why doesn't gravity have the same behavior as electromagnetism, namely, polarization. Magnets have north and south poles; atomic particles have positive and negative charges. Yet gravity does not seem to have any sort of polarity. There's no opposite of gravity: in our universe, gravity only seems to pull, never push. Why not?

Perhaps gravity is polarized, but we've never noticed. If Einstein could have figured out a way to combine gravity with magnetism, he would have died a happy man. Hiro accidentally discovers just such a way, but to him, it's a bitter disappointment. Truth and knowledge are not always happy concepts.

Turkey Day Links
2006-11-23 12:55
by Ken Arneson

Happy Holidays. Have some links with your stuffing:

Neuron noise may be bayesian. More on this.

A series of articles on emotional truth.

This doesn't have anything to do with aesthetics or neuroscience, but I just wanted to write the words Cretaceous Normal Synchron.

The mathematics of memory.

2006-11-04 11:08
by Ken Arneson

The brain is a freakishly efficient computer.

Developments in the understanding of short-term and long-term memories.

Humans have mirror neurons for sound. The brain treats musical patterns in similar ways to visual patterns and language.

A grammar of morality? Marc D. Hauser has written a book on how our moral intuitions work and why they evolved.

How Do You Look is an art exhibit exploring eye-hand coordination. There's a interesting comparison between an artist and a surgeon.

A neuroscientist defends his turf from outsiders. Somehow I think Kuhn predicted this response.

A primer on sex differences in the brain.

What's the Mechanism, Kenneth?
2006-10-23 21:54
by Ken Arneson

The attempt to define art/beauty/taste/aesthetics goes at least as far as Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece, and continues to this day. The definition remains elusive.

There's no one theory that causes a large group of people to say, "That's it!" More often, you'll hear people give up, and declare art to be an undefinable mystery.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about this problem in a recent New Yorker essay. He puts the problem into two camps: the David Hume camp (the subjective cannot be defined) and the Lord Kames camp (there must be some sort of logic behind taste):

"Beauty is no quality in things themselves," the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote. "It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty." Hume might as well have said that nobody knows anything.

But Hume had a Scottish counterpart, Lord Kames, and Lord Kames was equally convinced that traits like beauty, sublimity, and grandeur were indeed reducible to a rational system of rules and precepts.

Instinctively, I fall into the Kames camp. There is too much consistency in the way humans appreciate art for there not to be some sort of algorithm at work behind that consistency.

I must admit, however, that I've tried to read several of the more famous works in the history of aesthetics, and every time, I read about three or four pages, and stop. Something just tells me that the approach is wrong, and to read further is just a waste of time.

I think the reason I give up on those theories is that I kinda have a vague vision of what the features of a valid aesthetic theory should look like. When a writer starts going off on abstract tangents that aren't addressing any of those features, I tend to roll my eyes, and move on.

Here's an attempt to capture those features. In my mind, a valid aesthetic theory should be:

  • Consistent With Evolution

    Humans create and appreciate art, pretty much universally. Some animals show some capacity for art, but nowhere near to the extent that humans do. A valid theory of art will explain how we got from Point A (animals with no or limited artistic capabilities) to Point B (fully artistic humans), and why.

  • Consistent With Neuroscience

    Hume was right in one sense: art is a function of the mind. In Hume's day, the mind was an inpenetrable mystery. But with recent breakthroughs in our understanding of the brain, we can begin to unravel the mystery. We can begin to understand art as a function of not just some incomprehensible entity called "the mind", but as a function of the basic mechanisms of the brain. A valid aesthetic theory will explain the mechanisms of artistic appreciation in the brain, down to a the level of neural networks and brain cells and the chemical reactions inside the human brain.

  • Consistent With The Human Lifespan

    A baby can't appreciate Picasso. A toddler will prefer Teletubbies to Shakespeare. Teenagers tend to like the latest popular music, and senior citizens tend to like the kind of stuff they liked back when they were teenagers.

    Art isn't static. Our tastes change throughout our lifespan in somewhat predictable ways. A valid theory will explain why and how this happens.

  • Consistent With Observed Artistic Phenomena

    Cliché. Obscurity. Critical acclaim. Popularity. Beloved. Controversial. One-hit wonder. Long prolific career. Passing or failing the test of time.

    It's not only the individual who changes over time. The artist and the work of art itself both seem to change over the course of their lifetimes in the marketplace of ideas. We need to explain these phenomena, how they change over time, and why.

  • Able to Make Accurate Predictions

    Gladwell's article shows that we are beginning to be able, with the help of sophisticated computers, to be able to make fairly accurate predictions about how people will react to a given work of art.

    Right now, all we can do is identify certain statistical clusters, and whether a given work of art falls into one cluster or another. We don't yet really know why these works of art cluster in these ways, or how the other bullet points on this list tie into these clusters. A good theory of art will explain these clusters, and relate them to the other elements on this list.

Those are the things I'm looking for. My main purpose for this blog is to record any progress I find in these areas, and to muse about what they mean toward the ultimate goal: a viable theory of aesthetics.

More Links
2006-10-18 11:40
by Ken Arneson
Aesthetics Link Dump
2006-09-25 08:50
by Ken Arneson

Aesthetics around the world wide web:

How did language evolve? Babel's Dawn is a blog devoted to that topic. Plus, if you have an hour to spend learning about this issue, Martin Sereno presents an interesting lecture on his theory about how it all happened.

An interview with neuroscientist Nancy Andreason on the nature of creativity.

Clusters of greatness: Why are all the great composers German?

How does the brain process music?

Neuroarthistory? I didn't know you could mix Greek and Anglo-Saxon words like that.

A New Yorker intro to neuroeconomics.

Gifted dyslexic storytellers.

The psychological basis behind team sports loyalties.

David Foster Wallace describes Roger Federer as an aesthetic/religious experience.

Defending the Star-Spangled Banner
2006-09-19 17:04
by Ken Arneson

Blender has come out with their list of 50 worst things to happen to music. #3 on their list is the Star-Spangled Banner:

Here's an idea: Let's have the theme song for the world's biggest and most diverse democracy be: 1) boring; 2) violently militaristic; and 3) next to impossible to sing.

Not only that, but it has a lousy beat, and you can't dance to it.

But, there's this: I love the fact that our National Anthem, unlike most other national songs, is not a statement about our homeland, but a question.

The question is basically this: Are we still here?

Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

I don't think you can do a better job of encapulating why America is great--why America wins--better than those two lines. These are the three pillars of a great nation:

  • Freedom: The freedom to think and act as one wishes is the very source of our ability to improve ourselves faster than any other nation on the planet.
  • Bravery: The willingness to defend that freedom
  • Questioning: Are we still free? Are we still on the right track? Do we need to change things? The willingness to be uncertain; the determination to acknowledge our flaws; and the courage to face up to and correct our mistakes--this is how a nation improves over time.

With all three traits, you get progress; take just one away, and you get stagnation or regression.

We can do worse than to remind ourselves that our nation is a question mark, not an exclamation point. Yes, the song has many faults, as does America itself. But our flawed packaging is redeemed by the small, solid piece of greatness wrapped within.

Welcome to the Aesthetics Blog!
2006-09-05 23:56
by Ken Arneson

This is a blog about aesthetics, or, the science of art.

Art is still one of the great unsolved mysteries of human behavior. Why do we like what we like? What makes a work of art good or bad? What are we doing when we create or absorb a work of art?

These are some of the questions I'll be asking and attempting to answer on this blog.