On Art and the Pursuit of Happiness

This Is Your Brain on Art


In the November 27 New York Times Book Review Jim Holt gives a fascinating review of Thinking, Fast and Slow, a new book about how we make decisions by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in economic science.

The gist of the book is that we are not the rational decision makers we believe ourselves to be, information that has obvious and serious repercussions for economic science.

In his review Holt notes that Kahneman does not care to deal philosophically with the nature of rationality; what he wants to discuss is what he sees as its goal: happiness.

When talking about happiness, Kahneman differentiates between “experienced” well-being and “remembered” well-being, and discovers, through experimentation—one cringe-inducing experiment dealing with painful colonoscopies—what he calls “duration neglect” and the “peak-end rule.”

This just means that when we remember pain, we forget how long it lasted and only remember the peak of the discomfort. Also, if it ends pleasantly, we remember it more favorably, even if we experienced more actual pain.

This is where it gets fascinating for me. Holt quotes Kahneman—“I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”

Holt then writes that Kahneman might not have gone far enough in saying the experiencing self is a stranger, that “There may be no experiencing self at all.”

He offers as evidence a study done by Rafael Malach and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. When subjects absorbed in an experience—watching a movie in this instance—“the parts of the brain associated with self-consciousness are not merely quiet, they’re actually shut down (inhibited) by the rest of the brain.” Holt concludes, “The self seems simply to disappear.”

So science is bearing out what we already know. When having an aesthetic experience, the self-conscious parts of the brain are literally shut down, turned off. When they open back up, the aesthetic experience disappears, becomes an object for your remembering self to look at, discuss, inspect.

You cannot be both aware of yourself and absorbed in a work of art—whether or not the work of art is good is not important for this discussion; the test subjects in Malach’s study were watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Self-consciousness then is an an-aesthetic. It deadens the experience.

Our brains are like air locks, those pressurized chambers which makes it possible to move safely from inside a cramped space ship out into space. The door of self-consciousness has to be sealed shut before the door to the experience can be opened. They simply cannot both be open at the same time.

Maybe this explains why I can no longer sit through a television show unless I’ve rented it and can see it commercial free. The commercials aren’t just annoying; they repeatedly drive away the experience by knocking open the self-conscious part of the brain, reminding me of myself and all the crap I should want to buy.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I find it maddening. I can’t last a whole show.

There’s more to the self-consciousness problem than the enjoyment of art. Annie Dillard says that it is “our very self-consciousness” which all religions recognize as “the one thing separating us from our creator.”

There are simply places you cannot go and bring yourself along. People who have had epiphanies, who have lost themselves and experienced mystery, have had it happen to them in many different places and many different ways. It isn’t something you can manufacture.

Art appears to be the most reliable way to shut down self-consciousness, the one most necessary condition. Art seals the little door closed, and holds you there in the air lock, sustains you in a state of readiness–and every now and then, the big door opens and we get a glimpse.

As for whether or not we are happy: when we are lost in a work of art, when our souls are open to it and fully alive, the question is irrelevant.


originally posted at “Good Letters,” Tuesday January 24, 2012



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