The arguments over Dr. Christensen’s paper pointed to disputes within the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, or the study of the neural processes underlying our appreciation and the production of beautiful objects and artworks:
■ On Team 1 you’ll find the argument that the experience of pleasure from art is neurobiologically identical to the experience of pleasure from candy or sex.
■ Team 2 believes that both making and appreciating art can offer unique neurobiological rewards.
■ Team 3 asks, “Who knows?!” (“Who cares?!” seems to be a subset of this group.)
Given that pleasure is known to be a powerful motivator of human behavior, it’s a dispute with implications far beyond art — at least according to Team 1 and Team 2.
“It’s starting to get really hot,” said Dr. Nadal of the debate. (In case you were wondering — he studies architectural lines because they are everywhere, affecting us in ways most of us have never considered, and they make “for good laboratory material because they are easy to control.”)
There are some core elements that all sides seem to agree on:
■ As with wine, how much people enjoy art seems to be affected by contextual cues like price or the reputation of the creator.
■ Art is difficult but possible to define. (Definitions vary however.)
■ Across cultures, what people perceive as beautiful is less consistent with artwork than it is with architecture, landscapes and faces. (Faces are the most consistent.)
What they do not agree on is whether enjoying a da Vinci engages a different neural process than enjoying a visit to Pornhub or McDonalds.
Dr. Nadal, speaking for Team 1, said in an interview that “humans appear to use only one pleasure system to assess how pleasurable or unpleasurable a sensory experience is.” He calls this discovery “one of the most important insights to emerge from the last 15 years of neuroscience,” and believes it shows that while enjoying Cheez-Its or a sculpture may feel different, in our brains they are processed the same way.
Others who study pleasure are not convinced.
“Talking in terms of shared neural systems is foolish,” said Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale University and author of the book “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.” He thinks that “art scratches all kinds of itches.” While watching ”The Sopranos” or parallel parking a car are all done by the brain, he says that doesn’t mean they are the same.
Dr. Christensen, who studied dance before she became a neuroscience, said she is not disputing that a single reward system processes all pleasures. But that does not eliminate the possibility that the arts also active additional neural systems “related to memory processes, sense of self and reasoning that add something more to this pleasure.” This “high-level pleasure” requires more scientific investigation. But given that we spend our lives chasing pleasures, she argues, why not try to better understand one of the few that “do not induce states of craving without fulfillment,” or cause health problems and instead “makes you think and experience things differently.”
All of this may lead you ask, if pleasures are so similar, why don’t people ever orgasm from pleasure associated with food or art? Actually some do. According to Debra Herbenick, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public Health, eating a ripe tomato or reading nonerotic prose has been reported to provoke an orgasm. So too has walking barefoot on wood floors and doing pull-ups. She cannot yet say why, which lends support to the broader notion that, “There is really so much we as scientists still don’t understand about pleasure.”
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