High Road or Low?

I’m currently reading “Mind Wide Open” by Steven Johnson (his most known work is “Everything Bad is Good for You”). It’s subtitled “Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life”. In it he cites the work of researcher Joseph LeDoux, who has found that the experience of danger actually follows two distinct pathways in the brain – one conscious and rational, the other unconscious and intuitive. The second pathway, dubbed the “Low Road”, ends at the amygdala, which basically specializes in emotional response. This bifurcation is why you will find yourself suddenly frozen in place when you glimpse a very snake-like branch on the trail, before your cortex is able to analyze the much more high-resolution signal it receives and conclude that it’s not a threat. It’s very much a matter of bandwidth – the amygdala gets a very low-res version very quickly, while the cortex signal is slower but richer in content. Other studies show that our ability to apprehend the emotional states of others is handled much better by this brain sub-system as well – your immediate, intuitive reaction to someone’s facial expression is much more accurate than the one settled on through your cortical deliberations. First thought, best thought.

This made me wonder if a person’s predilection toward more sketchy, painterly artworks isn’t somehow tied to this neurological phenomenon – we tend to think of it as a “gut reaction”, but could it be that this is a function of the way our brains work? It’s interesting to note that as we grow more knowledgeable about art, we tend to value works that embody a more spontaneous, less fussy visual style. Is this because we learn to trust our amygdala and depend less on our cerebral cortex – and it’s greater complexity? To me, the whole purpose of art is to convey something universal about an individual, internal emotional state – what better part of the brain to utilize than the one that specializes in emotion?

2 Replies to “High Road or Low?”

  1. Mark, you raise an interesting question. I suppose our reaction could be explained by this two tiered mode of perception, but I note that we also experience a similar phenomenon in our reaction to music: when we are young, we tend to like music that is loud and fast with all kinds of theatrical trills, but as we get older, we tend to find more pleasure in simplicity. We migrate from symphonies with lots of parts and crashing cymbals to gentler chamber music, which we hear with new ears, as if for the first time. Could this be part of the same phenomenon?

  2. I’m not sure if the same neurological process is at work in the music scenario, but it is certainly a possibility. It seems likely that our initial musical “tastes” would be arrived at via our receptivity to the amygdala’s influence – and then that particular predisposition would be further refined as we grow older.

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