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Theory of Mind: Why Art Evokes Empathy
That painting is not complete until the viewer responds to it.
We have a sense of empathy with works of art. If we see gestures in a portrait, we actually almost simulate those gestures in our mind. We often implicitly act as if we are moving our arms in response empathically to what we see in the painting.
We also respond empathically to what we think the sitter is experiencing in their head. So we have what is called “a theory of mind” in which when I look at you, I have a sense of where you’re going and you have a sense of where I’m going. We have an enormous capability by just looking at the person we are interacting with, and particularly if we’re having a conversation, to predict certain aspects of future events simply by looking at them. This is an extraordinary capability that human beings have.
Of course, we have motivational systems that drive us in various ways. So we now understand this, not only in psychological terms, in cogno-psychological terms, but we understand this in terms of the specific regions that are involved. One way we’ve learned about the many functions of the brain is by people who have disorders of the brain. So there are people who have difficulty with recognizing faces. That’s a disorder called Prosopagnosia, which a clinician by the name of Joachim Bodamer first described in the 1940s. And he was the one that realized it’s this inferotemporal region that is involved in it. We now realize that that is not so rare. Ten percent of people are born with some degree of face blindness. It can be modest. It can be severe.
For example, Chuck Close, the great portrait painter, is face blind and compensates for that in a number of wonderful ways. He deals with paintings as if they were flat, which makes it easier for him to work with them.
We have people who suffer from autism, which is a disorder in social interaction which is extremely important in the beholder’s share. Without social interaction you can’t empathize with the person with whose face you’re looking at. In fact, most autistic people don’t have a beholder share. They don’t participate in the social interaction that’s involved in looking at a painting.
We also know that modulatory systems get recruited. For example, the cover of my book is a painting by Adele Bloch-Bauer for with Ron Lauder paid $135 million - the most ever paid for a painting at that time. What caused him to pay that much for this, granted, beautiful painting? Well it has a long history. He fell in love with the painting. And we know that if you fall in love, it’s like an addictive process. The dopaminergic system that gets recruited for pleasurable stimuli gets dramatically recruited for this.
So, if I show you a picture of a person you love, the dopaminergic system goes wild. If that person rejects you in a love relationship and I show you the picture, the dopaminergic system goes even wilder. So I like to think that when Lauder was 14 years old and saw this painting, his dopaminergic system went into high gear. And then he experienced unrequited love for all those years. He didn’t have the resources or the opportunity even to buy it until quite recently when the Austrians finally restored the painting to the family that had owned it. They put it on the market and he was, for the first time, in a position to buy. So this is unrequited love going over a period of decades that really sort of fired his dopaminergic neurons in my imagination, and drove him to really want this painting very badly. He bought it and he now gets enormous pleasure from having it hang in the Neue Gallery.
This is only a beginning. We don’t have a deep understanding of the beholder’s response, but it’s interesting that if you put together what we know from disorders of brain function and the normal physiology, we begin to understand an outline of what the beholder’s response is. And this is so important because in 1906 when Freud was active and Klink, Tolkuchka and Sheely, the artists were active, there was a major person at the Vienna School of Artistry called Alois Riegl. And he said that the problem with art history is, it’s going to go down the tubes because it’s too anecdotal, it’s too descriptive. It’s got to become more scientific. And the science it should relate itself to is psychology. And the key problem that it should address right off is the beholder’s share. You have a painting. That painting is not complete until the viewer responds to it.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Credit: NAOJ<p><em>Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.</em></p>
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.