Keeping Score in the Arts #5: A Lifetime of Art
by Ken Arneson
2004-03-10 7:15

This is the fifth in a series of six articles.
Preview. 1. A New Science. 2. A Brain Lesson. 3. Hypothesis. 4. Some Explaining to Do.

In my last article, I used my hypothesis to explain some commonly seen phenomena about art. In this article, I want to explore how our tastes change over the course of our lifetimes.


When my daughter was three months old, she laughed for the first time.

I bent over, so that my daughter could only see my hair. Then I suddenly lifted my head up, so my daughter could see my face again. My daughter burst out into a fit of giggling laughter.

The scientific term for this behavioral phenomenon is “peekaboo”.

Peekaboo is an art form. If you reveal your head too slowly–no laughs. If you lift your head up and down too quickly–no laughs. To achieve maximum laughs, must hide your face, and then reveal it, with a certain optimal delay.

My three-month-old daughter, who could not talk, who could not eat solid food, whose only major accomplishment of human behavior was to hold her own head up without it flopping over, was suddenly demonstrating a sense of aesthetic quality.

Child psychologists say that peekaboo tests the concept of “object permanence”. Object permanence is the concept that an object still exists even though you cannot see it. Before object permanence, when the face is gone, it’s gone. When it’s there, it’s there.

Object permanence turns peekaboo into a paradox: the face is not there (I can’t see it), but it is there (objects continue to exist even while not visible). It’s not there, but it is there! Two separate, and indeed contradictory, memories get associated with each other, and the result is a new memory.

Peekaboo’s effectiveness lasts for several months. At first, it seems you can play it endlessly and get a laugh every time. Slowly, though, the game gets more sophisticated. Your timing needs to be more precise to elicit laughter. You can’t emerge from the same place each time: you have to suddenly emerge from unexpected directions to get a laugh. Eventually, sometime after the child’s first birthday, peekaboo stops working altogether.

Peekaboo becomes a cliché. The child has become completely habituated to the idea of object permanence.

Preschool age

Why do kids like cartoons? Do you know of any young child who prefers a live action film to an animated one? I don’t.

As you saw with object permanence, one new memory can become half the building block for another. It’s a long process, though. Children take much longer to become habituated to new things than adults. Ask any parent who’s had to tell the same story over and over and over. And over. And over. And over.

Adults are habituated to so many more things than young children are. Children experience much more unrecognition with any given artwork than an adult does, and far less cliché.

Cartoons are simpler in every way than live action film. With live action, there is so much else going on: the colors, the lighting, the backgrounds, the body movements, the facial expressions–they are all more complex than a cartoon. There is so much more the brain needs to filter, and so the young brain becomes much less likely to recognize patterns in live action film.

In cartoons, however, there is much less information to sort through. The child can more easily recognize the patterns, the plots, the characters and their emotions–and trigger all those pairs of neurons, and create new memories.

School Age

When my daughter turned five, she was given a (fake) coonskin cap from a relative who had visited the Alamo. She loved it. When she started kindergarten, she wore it on her first day of school. She’s in first grade now, and she still sometimes wears it to school.

That won’t last. Nobody else in her school wears a coonskin cap.

Somewhere between second and fourth grades, ages 8-10, what other people think about art suddenly becomes hugely important to us. The clothes that looked fine before suddenly are rejected because that’s not what everyone else is wearing. Kids will suddenly develop passions for sports or pop music, because that’s what their peers are doing.

In other words, art becomes a social act. Before this, a child’s reaction to a work of art is almost purely its own. After this point, what other people do enters the database of patterns we build up in our brain, and becomes a factor in our judgments.

The child is building more and more sophisticated patterns every day. More and more adult-level patterns move from unrecognition into recognition, as the child-level patterns move into cliché.

Young adults

Mature adults often hate popular artworks aimed at a teenage audience. Adults see them as cliché, but the teenagers don’t. As the teenagers mature into young adults, and experience those patterns over and over again, that begins to shift.

Why don’t college radio stations play bubble-gum pop music? Because college-age students are finally at the age where they can easily recognize the clichés of popular culture. At an age where young adults are establishing their own independence, there’s a natural rebellion against the standards of popular culture from the previous generation.

The passing of generations is probably a vital creative force. In the effort to reject the old generation, a new generation puts a lot of effort into finding new kinds of patterns that they can identify as their own.

Mature Adult

So why don’t we just hate everything by the time we’re say, 50 years old? By then, we’ve probably seen so many patterns we become nearly impossible to please.

This is where I think my focus on habituation breaks down a bit. I focus on it because I think it plays such a huge role in how we perceive art. But all the other forms of conditioning can also affect how we form nondeclarative memories in our Animal Brain.

Nostalgia is the result of a kind of associative conditioning, similar to Pavlov’s dog. When you first enjoy a work of art, you get a positive emotion associated with it as a sort of byproduct. Those positive emotions will remain with that artwork, and any similar artworks that remind you of it. You become conditioned to enjoy that kind of art, the way the dog became conditioned to expect food after hearing a bell.

I still listen to a lot of the same music I listened to in college. Yes, I can recognize the clichés in the old stuff, but I still like it anyway. A lot of the new stuff is either too clichéd or unrecognizable to me.

I’m just an old fuddyduddy now, I guess.

Next: A better mousetrap.

This is Ken Arneson's blog about baseball, brains, art, science, technology, philosophy, poetry, politics and whatever else Ken Arneson feels like writing about
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