Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Behavioral Functions of Aesthetics: Science and Art, Reason, and Emotion

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Behavioral Functions of Aesthetics: Science and Art, Reason, and Emotion

Article excerpt

Francis Mechner's "Behavioral and Biological Analysis of Aesthetics"

The opportunity to comment on Francis Mechner's "Behavioral and Biological Analysis of Aesthetics" (2017) is an honor and pleasure. Only someone steeped in the arts and humanities as well as a theoretically grounded scientific scholar such as Mechner could effectively cover the territory addressed in his exposition. My discussion concerns several domains of common interest as well as putting forward thoughts of my own. Mechner's examination of audience and cultural variables, the role of reinforcement mechanisms in aesthetic concepts, and respondent emotional conditioning provide especially fertile ground for discussion. I also wish to examine the intellectually appealing, but perhaps deceptively beguiling, topic of evolutionary aesthetics. With the reader's forbearance, I have embedded examination of these issues as well as several others within the framework of my thoughts about behavioral aesthetics.

Two Aesthetic Traditions

Our shared aesthetic experiences created by music, poetry, stories, painting, and other activities characteristic of a culture provide the loom upon which culture is woven. These aesthetic forms exert their effects through their behavioral functions: they serve as antecedent motivating events, prompts to action, maintaining consequences and artistic behavior that connect them. As Mechner has aptly suggested, embedding such aesthetic events within the behavioral activities that make up our culture is a powerful behavioral tool for binding a culture together. He discussed cultural variables as priming factors that increase the effectiveness of aesthetic materials. This article explores the behavioral functions of dispositional aesthetic materials and events and suggests ways in which those processes become essential components of cultural metacontingencies (Glenn, 1988; Todorov, 2013).

Mechner's discussion of mechanisms responsible for aesthetic experiences is supplemented here by my own attempt to reconcile our understanding of how aesthetic beauty has been treated across various cultures with inductive empirical traditions (Popper, 1959; Quine, 1969). In the present article, I attempt to integrate the role of intuitive, affectively creative visual arts, musical, and written materials with Quine's naturalistic epistemology (Quine, 1969) and Wittgenstein's early comments on aesthetics (Wittgenstein, 1966), as well as drawing upon behavior analysis (Skinner, 1938, 1957). Integrating these intellectual traditions may seem like striking discordant notes on the piano simultaneously. Perhaps as Wittgenstein has suggested, we may not only discover where the shoe pinches, philosophically speaking (Wittgenstein, 1961), but perhaps we may arrive at a way of overcoming that intellectual disharmony while doing so.

Physical Characteristics of Aesthetic Stimuli

As Mechner (2017) pointedly stated, there are no universal identifying physical properties of what is deemed aesthetic that extend from culture to culture. To expect that a list of such features exists in nature is akin to asking for the physical defining properties of the dynamic concept of reinforcers for operant behavior (Skinner, 1938, pp. 21, 38). The opportunity to listen to the Kronos Quartet, attend a watercolor painting master class, or to listen to Mary Oliver read her poetry can all serve as maintaining events for the behavior of interested individuals under the right circumstances. There is nothing physically in common across those events any more than there is among aesthetic events.

Cognitive neuroscientists have focused on the relations between features of artistic stimuli and their perceived properties and brain activation effects (Chatterjee, 2004; Skov & Vartanian, 2009). This technological approach, called neuroaesthetics, applies the tools of brain imaging to attempt to answer questions similar to those addressed by earlier physiologists (such as Fechner, 1876/1997) and later Gestalt psychologists (Spehar & Van Tonder, 2010), but without the neurophysiological appurtenances. …

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