Science, Art, and Culture

We are honoured to introduce the very first collaboration with The Lonely Walkers. We want to talk about as many topics as you may be interested in and of course we don’t know about it all, so it’s really an honour to have people suggesting issues and writing articles to publish in our blog. Here you have a first look on Science, Art and Culture. Especial thanks to Joseph Hilferty, professor of English Linguistics at the University of Barcelona and scientific adviser at the Barcelona “Social Brain” Chair. He also is the main member of the indie pop group Neurotic Kites (Repetidor Disc).


It is of course easier to idealize the world than it is to think of it in its full complexity. If we see a predator during a walk in the woods, we do not stop to think of all the possibilities at hand. We do not entertain thoughts such as: perhaps the predator is lonely and is merely looking for company, or perhaps the predator is not hungry and has no interest in us at all. Instead, for survival’s sake, we automatically assume that the predator is probably dangerous and that it is best to get oneself out of range as quickly and safely as possible.

This type of idealized thinking makes perfect sense when presented with decisions in which one’s life might be at stake. If you are not mentally quick to react, you might well find yourself to be part of a predator’s diet instead of leaving offspring or helping your offspring to survive, so that they in turn may do the same thing. Idealized thinking is not a bad thing per se.

Unfortunately, on altogether too many occasions, society tends to simplify many issues so deftly that the “idealized” distortion of the facts is taken to be an unassailable truth. One such case is the (supposed) dichotomy between art and science. Art is art and a part of the culture; science is just that: science; it is not really part of culture but somehow transcends it.

In this short commentary, I would like to argue that people trained in the humanities should not be scared of the knowledge that can be gleaned from science. I would similarly like to suggest to scientists that they can get much more than aesthetic gratification from artwork: understanding artistic creativity is an extremely valuable and interesting avenue of inquiry. In short, what I will be arguing is that both art and science are part of culture and that the dividing line between science and art is fuzzy at best, if not genuinely artificial.

I have long been a fan of music videos. Sure, some are pretty “cheesy”; others are just okay; and still others might be deemed to be true pieces of art. I do not want to get into a debate about what constitutes art, but I think that quite a few of us would agree that the video for Ingrid Michaelson’s song “The Way I Am” is pretty good.

But why? My hypothesis is that it strikes a chord with most people because it plays with our idealized cognitive models. This concept was developed by George Lakoff in his classic cognitive-linguistics book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1987) and stems from groundbreaking work in cognitive psychology by his U.C. Berkeley colleague, Eleanor Rosch. The idea is that people reason about and categorize things against the backdrop of idealized notions of how we think the world is structured.

My guess is that, in most people’s view of the world, clowns do not count as representative exemplars of the notion people. In terms of Rosch’s theory of categorization (called prototype theory), clowns would probably be judged to be highly peripheral members of category people, just as penguins are known to be judged as highly peripheral members of the category bird. That is, both clowns and penguins are considered to be highly unrepresentative of their respective categories.

But what happens in Michaelson’s video? Our idealized cognitive model of people (or perhaps better yet, social structure) is turned on its head. The prototypical person in the world presented in the video is that of a clown. By contrast, so-called “normal” individuals such as Michaelson are atypical of the category people in this particular world. In fact, at one point, Michaelson ironically labels herself a “freak” because she happens to be normal. Hence, the beauty of the story turns out not to be a matter of Michaelson accepting the clown for what he is, but exactly the contrary: we find the video striking precisely because it is the clown that accepts the Michaelson for what she is—a normal person.

Though the analysis is necessarily brief and incomplete, this is an interesting case in which science and art come together and complement each other. Prototype effects in human categorization have been replicated over and over again in peer-reviewed psychology journals and, without using prototype theory and the notion of idealized cognitive models, it is difficult to make sense of the video in terms of an explicit analysis. What is more, understanding the video in this way takes nothing away from the pleasure we get from watching it. It also seems to complement it.

To be sure, the foregoing merely scratches the surface concerning the relations between science and art. It would, I think, be very exciting to see a whole series of writings on the topic in TLW blog. Admittedly, technological knowledge has always been a part of doing art. There is no denying that. But the larger point is that artists should not be afraid of exploring and learning about the results of empirical science; likewise, scientists surely can find great inspiration and wonderful examples for their theories by using the intuition and know-how of artists. After all, at the end of the day, it is all culture.


About Joseph Hilferty

Joseph Hilferty is a linguist interested in cognition and neurological processes. He is also a sometime lyricist and the main member of the indie pop group Neurotic Kites (Repetidor Disc). He also unfortunately suffers from early-onset Parkinsonism. Hilferty loves just about anything with two wheels.
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