The Influence of Perception: Jesse Prinz interviewed by Evdokia Sofos

Evdokia Sofos
Jesse Prinz
Jesse Prinz

Jesse Prinz, Philosopher Extraordinaire, cognitive scientist and aesthetician, is currently a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center, CUNY. His most recent book is Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind.  He is also the author of Furnishing the Mind: Concepts and Their Perception Basis and Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion, The Emotional Construction of Morals, and a forthcoming book, The Conscious Brain.

His work focuses on the influence of perception, emotion, and culture on human thought and values. Recently he launched the new art blog,, with Rachel Bernstein, his wife, a mixed-media artist.

I first met Jesse Prinz in January 2012, when he was on an interdiscipinary panel of experts, chosen to discuss the New Museum's Exhibition of Carsten Höller- “Experience.” The panel, along with the audience, debated how Höller challenged and affected the viewers' sensory perceptions and their assumptions, as the viewers explored and played their way through four floors of sensory “experiments.” Jesse's background as a cognitive and behavioral scholar lent a philosophical and psychological bent to the exchange. What I appreciated most about his contribution to the discussion was his ability to share his expert knowledge of philosophy and cognitive psychology in a casual and straight-forward manner.

Your research projects appear focused on the role of psychology in constructing the world; and the role of emotions in art. Where did your interest in these esoteric ideas come from?

My mother is an artist, and my father had an art-related business. The oldest photo of me is in a gallery, so I think the interest in art was inevitable. So much so, that I almost pursed a career as an artist. At some point (perhaps I was contemplating how I'd pay my rent), I realized that art is just a special case of a larger phenomenon. Artists create worlds, but the world we live in is also a creation. I've been preoccupied with how minds create worlds ever since.

Does your research indicate whether emotions are necessary for human survival?

Emotions are fundamental for survival. They evolved to alert us about life threatening dangers (fear), threats (anger), losses (sadness), and unhealthy things (disgust). They also give us pleasure in food, friendship, and fornication. But it is important to recognize that human emotions are not merely about survival. They are culturally cultivated to give life meaning. Many of the things that arouse us, such as recreation, spirituality, and art, are inessential for survival, but they give us distinctively human and rewarding lives.

In terms of art, are the artists' emotions a valuable commodity? Would the artists' work suffer if their emotions were disembodied from their work? Or is this issue moot in the post-modern art world reflecting the death of the author, where it is the viewers who interpret the work utilizing their own symbols and signifiers?

Leo Tolstoy thought that all art is the expression of feeling. I think that was a gross overstatement. Admittedly, some artists create works to unleash their deepest passions. We see this in Romantic painters like Antoine Wiertz, symbolist painters like Edward Munch, expressionists like Otto Dix, and some political artists like Ana Mendieta. But other artists have little interest in communicating their feelings. Some artists focus on making technical achievements (think about early experiments with perspective), some artists what to express ideas (think of the conceptual works in Yoko Ono's Grapefruit), and some want to make things that are satisfying to look at (perhaps Joseph Albers falls in this category). Many artists are also in dialogue with art itself, and they are more interested in fulfilling or challenging extant conventions than pouring out the contents of the soul. 

More important than the emotions expressed by art, may be the emotions evoked. I think all art is in the business of arousing one emotion in particular: wonder. Wonder can be defined as a positive feeling of perplexity, sensory engagement, and elevation. It might sound surprising to say all art aspires to wonder. For example, Sol LeWitt created these complex geometrical drawings that may seem too mathematical to be evocative of any feeling at all, let alone wonder. But when standing before a wall of LeWitt drawings, we can't help but be amazed by the scale, obsessiveness, and incomprehensibility of his constructions. Wonder is the feeling that unites the most expressive and the most arcane: it is evoked by both Delacroix and Duchamp.Once we realize that the most crucial emotions are in the spectator, not the creator of art, we can see the kernel of truth of in the post-modern mantra that the audience matters more than the author.

What emotion would you classify as outdated for us, such as the equivalent of goosebumps?

Goosebumps are outdated in one sense: they were evolved to make creatures look bigger to oncoming predators, but they only have that effect in creatures whose bodies are covered with fur. But goosebumps are not outdated in another sense: they don't make us look bigger, but they inform us when we are in the presence of something unknown and potentially threatening. I like the question about outdated emotions because it draws attention to an important fact: emotions can be shaped by history, even if they have roots in biology. The term enthusiasm used to refer to feelings associated with the belief that you were possessed by a god. Another old term is ascidia, which referred to the ennui that results from the drudgery of religious practice. Or consider religious fervor, which is still used today. In a secular world, these emotions become less relevant, because they are responses to beliefs and practices that are waning. But we may still find a place for such spiritual feelings, in sports, encounters with nature, art, parenting, or romance.

Your wife is a mixed-media artist, do you ever butt heads concerning your respective philosophies over art and emotion? 

Rachel is a source of inspiration. Her current work deals with invasive growths, such as fungi. These are normally off-putting, but, in the artist's hands, they become alluring. I think art has a lot to do with making the ordinary (or even the vile) extraordinary, and I find confirmation of that in the fungus project. There are also transgressions against boundaries in her work: natural/artificial, interior/exterior, and beautiful/ugly. Wonder has long been associated with such transgressions. It arises when familiar categories are challenged or reframed. I wouldn't trust any of my ideas about art if they didn't apply to Rachel's work.

You are often a guest speaker at museums on the subject of human emotions, philosophy and art. Recently, in the Rubin Museum of Art's series “Happy Talks,” you and actor, Liev Schreiber, discussed the fundamental search for happiness in the characters he has played – from Hamlet to Sabretooth. Central to Buddhist belief is the release of suffering, resulting in nirvana, a form of happiness. Our own founding fathers' declared that one of the people's inalienable rights was the Pursuit of Happiness. It appears that in the modern world this pressure to be happy has become the penultimate quest, generally ending in unhappiness. What conclusion did you both reach about this human curse for the search for happiness?

It was a pleasure sharing the stage with Liev Schreiber. He is very cerebral actor, and we confided before the session that neither of us is a poster child for happiness. I am wary of happiness, in fact. The founding fathers came from a hedonist tradition in British moral philosophy, which was connected to the rise of capitalism: let each augment his or her own coffer while not trespassing against others. But happiness is not a universal good. There are huge cultural differences in how much people care about happiness â€â€ù for example, Americans rate happiness as much more important than people in China. There are also huge cultural differences in what makes people happy: in the West happiness has much to do with personal achievement, and, in the East, it is more associated with efforts towards more collective goals. Finally, there are national differences in net happiness, and these are not highly correlated with GNP. For example, on some surveys Colombia comes out much happier than the U.S., even though they have less wealth there and decades of civil war. As you suggest, the pursuit of happiness may diminish happiness.

A recent study by Iris Mauss suggests that those who care most about happiness are less happy than others. Seeking happiness can make us miserable, because we link happiness to success, and we constantly notice that others are more successful. To avoid this consequence, we need to broaden the range of things that make us happy. We also need to realize that the good life may have less to do with how many units of happiness we have (“hedons”) and more to do with the richness of our experiences, the strength of our personal relationships, the knowledge we've acquired, and what we've managed to share with others. Happiness alone is boring. Worse still, happiness encourages complacency. Life is full of tragedy and injustice. Happiness is a worthy pursuit, but if it is our sole preoccupation, we may lose sight of our responsibility to care for others.

In your work you seek to decode the inner workings of human life. Where did the need for this research come from? How have your findings affected your own outlook and perhaps control or understanding of your own thought process?

Growing up in New York, I was always exposed confronted with cultural diversity. A single ride on a New York subway can instill a fascination with human variation. I think my interest in these questions began on the 7th Avenue Express. In other ways, however, New York can be surprsingly homogenous. I grew up in a world of liberal Democrats, rarely meeting anyone on the Right. My interest in cultural diversity has led me to believe that our mostly deeply held political values are the result of inculcation. In my own life, I've learned to be less judgmental of people who differ from me, and more distrusting of my own values. I find it helps to view political debates as anthropology.

Your research have been positively received because it is based more in cognitive and scientific research rather than the Gladwell books and TED Talks, which have been criticized for being merely collections of interesting anecdotes told to interest or perplex, but really offer no concrete answers or even any real basis in truth. What are your thoughts on this?

I admire Gladwell and others who skillfully and accessibly deliver scientific tidbits to the general public. There is nothing pejorative in the term “Edutainment.” Social scientists constantly discover fascinating facts about human behavior, and these should be shared. Most of my books fall into a different category: they do not just report fun facts, but take a stand on various controversies, criticizing some scientific theories, synthesizing research from multiple fields, and drawing connections to perennial issues in philosophy. I often write for an academic audience, but I always make an effort to explain things so that motivated lay readers can follow the arguments. I wrote Beyond Human Nature for a general audience, but it's not light reading. The topic is very seriousâ€â€ùdealing with racism, sexism, and various cultural clashes â€â€ùso it was important for me to write it in an uncompromising way. I try to write books that could interest anyone curious about how the mind works, but I don't want to drum up interest by dumbing down facts. Fortunately, I think the facts are pretty interesting without the sugar coating.

In your new book, Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind, you claim that culture rather biology (nurture versus nature) determines our lives and that it is human experience that molds the human mind. Can you elaborate what you mean by this?

Every party to the nature/nurture debate will tell you it's both: human behavior depends on both culture and biology. I agree, of course, but I think the human story begins with nurture. What makes us stand out as a species is our extraordinary capacity to be transformed by experience. Our most distinctive achievements, from clothing and farming to religion and art, are possible only because we can acquire and share knowledge with members of our social groups. We are by nature shaped by nurture. This fundamental fact has implications for every aspect of human psychology. Culture can influence how we see, how we reason, what emotions we experience, what mental illnesses we endure, what moral values we endorse, and who we find sexually attractive. I wrote the book because I wanted to share with readers lessons from the new science of cultural psychology.

How has the nurture versus nature argument changed over the years? What factors cause it to be assessed and reassessed?

The nature/nurture debate has a sordid history. Claims about innate traits were used to support imperialism, slavery, gender discrimination, and the holocaust. Today, mainstream defenders of that nature side are not motivated by bigotry, and they rely on serious science, instead of pseudoscience. That has been a major advance. We can move from ideology to evidence, and both sides of the debate try to use their research for positive ends. This change in the debate may provide evidence for the power of nurture over nature. In the last century, we've seen the end of Jim Crow, the rise of women's suffrage, and the growing legalization of gay marriage. Our values are in flux. These major societal changes have forced people to reject old claims about natural differences, and this has led to new insights about human flexibility.

Your research agrees with the findings of Scottish philosopher David Hume. How has his philosophy affected your research? How do you interpret his claim that reason is always slave to the passions?

Intellectual heroes from the past are a bit like foreign films. Foreign films aren't necessarily better than American films, but they seem better because only the very best ones are imported. History is also a great filter; only the best philosophers from the past are still read today. For me, David Hume is among the best of the best. He has been a constant source of inspiration. Hume recognized the importance of experience and the role of emotions in shaping human values. In saying that reason is the slave of the passions, he meant that, without emotions we would be indifferent to the world: there would be no morality, no love, no art. If we witness a murder, to take one of his examples, reason will tell us what was happening (one person is taking the life of another), but we need passion to tell us that this is wrong. Using the tools of psychology, my collaborators and I have tried to test Hume's thesis, and we have found that he was right. But he wasn't right about everything. For example, he failed to appreciate that, if values come from emotions, then values will be culturally relative. Each culture and subculture conditions people to feel differently. Hume recognized such variation, but, like many Enlightenment thinkers, he was overly optimistic about the prospects of convergence and consensus.

Your website focuses on heads: there is a head menu, drawings of various people with parts of their heads dissected, their brains peering through, reminiscent of lobotomies or Hannibel Lechter's dinner. Why this obsession with photographs and drawings of heads/brains?

Ha! Yes, maybe it is an obsession. We live in a visual culture in which we are constantly bombarded by heads. It's usually beautiful people we see, such as model and celebrities. Weirdly, fashion models are encouraged to be expressionless even though they are often photographed in bizarre locations wearing outlandish outfits. I find that fascinating and a little chilling. So I started drawing these sketches of expressionless heads with strange things happening to them. My interest in heads in also professional. As a scholar of the mind, I see the head as my subject of inquiry: heads are fleshy casings for our cognitive engines. Heads are also the mantels on which our faces hang. Faces have particular importance for psychology. Notice that the word face is a component of interface. The face is an entry point for experience, and an instrument of expression: it is the interface between mind and world.

You have magnetic resonance images of your own brain on your website. What is going on in your brain that you are sharing with your viewers? What would a magnetic resonance image detect in your brain at this moment?

In those pictures of my brain, absolutely nothing is happening! When fMRI is used, scientists create two images and superimpose them: one shows the structure of your brain and the other shows the metabolic activity. The images on my website just show the structure. I don't have images of the activity in my brain, so I cannot be sure that it is even working. If a picture of my brain were taken today, it would probably reveal a lot of action in my visual pathways, in reward centers such as the nucleus accumbens in the interior of brain, and in areas of my frontal cortex associated with obsessive trains of thought. Lately I've developed a mad preoccupation with 13th century art, and I have been compulsively sifting through reproductions of late gothic paintings. These colorful and awkward scenes capture a fascinating moment in our cultural history when science, art, and spirituality where still intertwined, but a new humanism was beginning to emerge. I'd like to return to that moment.

Evdokia Sofos is an award-winning writer and an Administrative Law Judge for the state of New York. Her essays have won the prestigious City College of New York Theresa Conner Prize three times. Her writing is forthcoming in numerous publications.

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