Posted by Steve Price on 02-10-2002 09:49 AM:

Instinctive and Learned Responses

Hi People,

The matter of whether responses to various forms and colors is instinctive or learned has come up in several threads. One position that's been promoted is that the responses to many of the elements of rugs is instinctive. I objected to this, arguing that the responses are, probably without exception, learned.

The counter argument was that, of course, we learn to be able to relate to our instincts.

This seems to me to be worth further exploration. Here's my take on it: An instinct is, by definition, a hardwired response. We don't have to learn it. If we have to be educated to it, it isn't an instinct.

The counter argument that says we have to learn to relate to it seems to me to be something between a tautology and obfuscation. Clearly enough, we can't learn ANYTHING for which neural wiring is inadequate or nonexistent. That's simple and straightforward. But it also means that the only way we can call learned responses instincts is to essentially redefine instincts.

To repeat myself (that's something we older folks do - or did I say that already?): Nobody has to teach us to avoid pain, appreciate warmth, appreciate eating or sleeping. Nobody teaches us to turn away from a bright light shining in our eyes, or to jump when startled. Those are all examples of instinctive responses. Appreciation of art and its elements is learned. If it's learned, it's not instinctive.

Alternative lines of thinking on this, other than
ad hoc redefining instinct to accommodate the hypothesis that we instinctively appreciate certain elements in some works of art?


Steve Price

Posted by Patrick Weiler on 02-10-2002 11:42 AM:

Universal Beauty?


Instincts allow animals to survive. They are like the software that comes with your new computer. You are born with them. But. You are born with them because countless of your ancestors with just the right mix of them in their genes bequeathed them to you. You got them because your ancestors survived long enough to pass them on to you. We all have different ancestors, so some of our instincts will be different, but not a lot different. We all get "Basic Cable", some of us get the "Premium" channels.

How does this relate to our innate, instinctive response to rugs? The colors, shapes and details incorporate features that trigger our survival instincts.
Am I saying that we need rugs to survive? No. But things about rugs, such as the colors, texture and details (spots, crosses, circles etc) that tell us about danger, warmth, food and shelter, generate instinctive responses in us.

For instance, a simple cross of sticks or grass might tell a prehistoric human that an animal had passed this way. Because the grass doesn't get that way by itself. It conveys a message. Circles can be eyeballs. Round, red circles equate to fruit, necessary for survival. Pink sky can tell us a lot about the upcoming weather. Bright Orange will tell us DANGER POISON SYNTHETIC DYES ! ! ! And so on. These examples are simplistic explanations, and probably are not scientifically provable, but the basic point is that designs and colors and textures cause instinctive responses. The pink walled room to calm people and the high blood pressure created by reds are also well known. The fact that babies will stare longer at a beautiful face has also been documented.

As for the learned response to "what is GOOD art", experts have studied the things that "turn us on" about art and can quantitatively assign values, along with adding in the non-instinctive factors such as rarity, demand, greed, ego and age.
As for rugs, one of the most popular rug types is the Caucasian type we are discussing in this salon. Why are they so popular? Because of the bold colors and stark geometric shapes that cause such immediate (instinctive) reactions. Take the Eagle Chelaberd Sunburst design. In black and white, it resembles nothing so much as an extreme enlargement of a squished bug on your windshield. In good, old colors it is a brilliant sunrise, a glorious flower, a shining star.

Now, where is my windshield cleaner?

Patrick Weiler

Posted by Steve Price on 02-10-2002 02:09 PM:

Hi Sophia,

There is ample evidence that we are hard wired to respond to forms that suggest faces, and that birds are hard wired to respond to forms that suggest eyes.

The rest of the examples you cite are pure conjecture, unless there is some supporting evidence of which I am unaware (in which case, please make me aware of it). The flattened patches of grass telling a prehistoric man that a critter came by recently is not instinctive, it is learned. So is the message that the pink sky conveys about weather. In fact, that one is so non-instinctive that there is a mnemonic to help us remember it (Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight). The immediacy of a reaction to stark colors and high contrast is not evidence that the response is instinctive, but that the patterns are easier to pick out, therefore require less time to process the information.

The extension from the rather few examples of hardwired (instinctive) responses that are documented to whatever we find evocative (almost entirely learned associations) is unwarranted.


Steve Price

Posted by Patrick Weiler on 02-10-2002 03:46 PM:

How Hard Is Your Wiring?


The wiring I am speaking of, the genetic construction that allows us to apreciate art, is subtle. The behavioral traits conferred by this genetic makeup may be secondary to whatever "positively selective" attributes the genes give us.
Scientists studying harmful genes are trying to find out if "common genetically linked disorders such as autism, depression and schizophrenia...may have been positively selected because they confer hidden survival benefits"... Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and novelty-seeking behavior are traits resulting from a genetic mutation only 10,000 to 40,000 years old. This gene, called the 7R allele-has spread rapidly among the world's population. It was "positively selective" because it gave its recipients a survival advantage. But what advantage? They think it may have allowed or driven the expansion of humans out of Africa.
The Cystic Fibrosis gene (the most common inherited disease among people of European descent-1 out of 28 people) slows the release of salts into the intestine, which may have saved people with this gene from severe dehydration and death from the diarrheal diseases that killed 7 of 10 newborns in Medieval Europe.
Lactose intolerance appears to be very old. "Perhaps it was even in the genome of humans before they migrated out of Africa." (Leena Peltonen, UCLA chairwoman of human genetics)It is not as prevalent only in Northern Europeans (75-80% versus 10-25% of African and Asian populations), who may have needed the nutritional benefits from milk products because the short summers only allowed a single crop harvest.
(from an article by Frank Royance, The Baltimore Sun).

Our preference for Caucasian rugs may be tied to our genetic predisposition to having less body hair than Neandertals. We just don't know.
What we do know is that babies are attracted to attractive people (healthy?) bright, colorful, moving things, and some rug collectors like bold geometric Caucasian rugs. The only conclusion I can come to is that we are just a bunch of big babies.

Patrick Weiler

Posted by Steve Price on 02-10-2002 04:29 PM:

Hi Patrick,

I think the take home message in your last post is that our genes set the limits on what we can or can't do or learn. Nobody can argue with that; at least, I can't. But that isn't the subject being debated. The issue is whether our responses to art are long dormant instincts, or learned. I see no evidence to contradict the hypothesis that they are learned, and lots of evidence that supports this view. This is not a denial of the existence of instincts, of course.


Steve Price

Posted by Unregistered on 02-10-2002 06:24 PM:

How Responsive Are We?


You say:

The issue is whether our responses to art are long dormant instincts, or learned.

People are either neutral, attracted to or not attracted to any specific piece of art. If they all then learn about art and which piece of art is better than another, this learning process does not eliminate the original attraction or non-attraction to a particular artwork. It may affect their appreciation of it, though.

I know that antique Aubusson rugs are very valuable and important. I still don't like them any more than I did when I first saw them.

Most people are instinctively afraid of snakes, spiders and bats.
We learn that some snakes are not dangerous, but most of us would still be startled at the sudden appearance of any snake, bat or spider in close proximity to our face.
Just because we learn that most of these are not dangerous and in fact are beneficial does not mean that we will not still be spooked by our instinctive dislike of them.

In my opinion, our instinctive or genetically endowed attraction to art is related to humans' ability to be builders and shapers of our environment, a survivability trait. I admit that it would be quite a challenge to find the "art gene" though. We may have to agree to a stalemate on this issue until science is able to locate it.

Patrick Weiler

Posted by Vincent Keers on 02-10-2002 07:14 PM:

Dear blockheads,

Here it is:

What do we see? Insect? Flower?
The older the embroideries are, the more the design looks like spiders, bee's etc.
Mr. Franses, on his beautiful designed site, only talks about flowers etc.

I wonder: Am I afraid of insects? Is Mr. Franses afraid of insects?
Are flowers more appreciated in our culture then insects?
Did the women that made them think of insects on flowers, or only flowers?
Would you buy a $40.000.- piece about insects while you're killing them in every day life?
Aren't flowers better?

think I'll make an apointment with my shrink now......cause I'm seeing insects all over the place and nobody else sees them. I must have lost track of....somewhere......

Bzzzzzt regards,

Posted by Marla Mallett on 02-10-2002 08:22 PM:

Are our attractions to art instinctual or learned? If we agree that with increased exposure we become more sophisticated in our tastes and better able to make quality judgments, it follows that these sensitivities can certainly be nurtured, these abilities learned. Yet the basic qualities that make superior works of art with appeal to human beings seem to be very much the same everywhere…only styles change from place to place, and from time to time. They seem based on characteristics in the natural environment that we all share on this earth, and through our experience as humans. Likewise, if we admit that an artist “matures,” that is becomes more competent as he or she spends more and more time with the discipline, what is that but “learning” about the most potent disposition of visual elements? Maturity as an artist comes not with learning more and better techniques, but with mental development and increased understanding of how one achieves the desired visual expression. With people who are merely consumers, rather than both consumers and producers, the process must surely be similar, just less intense. The less involved one is with creative processes, the more likely one is to be attracted to art that is shallow, the more likely he is to miss subtleties in the expression—either in concept or execution. “Learned”? Yes, indeed.


Posted by Steve Price on 02-10-2002 08:28 PM:

Hi Patrick,

People are, indeed, either neutral to, attracted by, or repelled by particular artworks. This does not illustrate instinctive responses. Indeed, the fact not everyone responds the same way to the same work of art is pretty good evidence that the responses are not instinctive.

As you note, most people in OUR culture are afraid of - or, at least, repelled by - spiders, snakes and bats. I know of nothing that would lead me to believe that this is instinctive. In fact, I have a feeling that if I knew enough about some cultures that are foreign to me, I'd find some in which spiders, snakes and bats were seen to be no more loathsome than ladybugs, turtles or chipmunks. Being startled by the sudden appearance of ANYTHING unexpected right next to our faces does elicit a fairly stereotypic response that does not depend on the thing being loathsome.


Steve Price

Posted by Patrick Weiler on 02-10-2002 09:40 PM:

No Instincts


I would suggest that your statement:

Indeed, the fact not everyone responds the same way to the same work of art is pretty good evidence that the responses are not instinctive.

Is a repudiation of the science of genetics, the laws of natural selection and the definition of instinct.

Not ALL members of a species are identical in genetic makeup. In other words, THEY RESPOND DIFFERENTLY to stimuli. Otherwise there would be no natural selection of different traits because there would BE no traits that are different. They would all respond the same way to the same: (insert your preferred statement) work of art/kind of food/type of potential mate/lifestyle/clothing style/website/rug/predatory behavior.

Our instinctive responses to various stimuli are different from one another. We are not all wired the same. You may not want to acknowledge that our varied responses are instinctive, you may prefer visceral, but the word "response" is described as "activity or inhibition of previous activity of an organism or of any of its parts resulting from stimulation" by a Mr. Webster in his 3rd New International Dictionary (unabridged). This Mr. Webster continues, in describing the word "Instinct", to say:
A complex and specific response on the part of an organism (that would be you in this case) to environmental stimuli that is largely hereditary and unalterable, though the pattern of behavior through which it is expressed (i.e. buying rugs) may be modified by learning.

Instinctively responsively yours,

Patrick Weiler

Posted by Steve Price on 02-10-2002 10:33 PM:

Hi Patrick,

I think you're getting bogged down by not distinguishing instinctive responses from other kinds. Once you define all responses as instinctive, of course every response to rugs is instinctive.

Two posts back you cite as evidence for the instinctiveness of responses to art that we respond to works of art either positively, negatively or in a neutral way. Well, that isn't just the way we respond to works of art, it's the way we respond to anything that creates a sensory input. There simply aren't any ways to respond except positively, negatively or not at all.

Let's go back to the Webster's definition of instinct that you cited. I'll ignore the first part, which is just the definition of a response. It then continues,
A complex and specific response ... that is largely hereditary and unalterable... That's my understanding of the word, too, so we begin on common ground. So, let's have a look at what it takes for something to be an instinct.
1. "A complex ... response" That is, it is more complicated than a reflex. Thus, pulling your hand away from a hot object is not an instinct, although it is innate behavior.
2. "A...specific response" That is, it isn't one response today and a different one tomorrow. This part, as far as I can see, eliminates responses to works of art, but let's continue anyway.
3. "...largely hereditary..." This suggests that the variability between individuals would be small, as it is for almost all hereditary characteristics. That's what makes the fact that different people respond very differently - often in completely opposite ways - evidence that the response is not instinctive. Different people have legs of different length and shape, but the limits of variation are small and it isn't hard to identify a leg when we see one. The same is true for other hereditary characteristics, of course. Part of Darwin's notion of how evolution works, a part still held today, is that natural selection acts on the very small differences between individuals within a population. He believed, as most contemporary biologists do, that major deviations from the population norm were irrelevant in evolutionary terms.
4. "...and unalterable..." This says that the response can't be changed by education. Does that sound like art appreciation to you? To me it doesn't.

I think we also have to bear in mind that the segment of the population that is interested in rugs - or, for that matter, in art - is very small. The universality of the appeal, which some attribute to a mysterious kind of memory or cross-cultural inheritance, doesn't exist. The vast majority of the people, even in an affluent and pretty well educated country like the USA, don't care a hoot about oriental rugs or art, and prefer wall to wall carpeting, soap operas, or sporting events. Among the small percentage interested in hand woven carpets, most prefer stuff you wouldn't use as packing material.


Steve Price

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 02-11-2002 04:57 AM:

Dear Patrick,

When you wrote: "In my opinion, our instinctive or genetically endowed attraction to art is related to humans' ability to be builders and shapers of our environment, a survivability trait", you hit the nail on the head again (now put down that hammer otherwise sooner or later you’ll hit one of your fingers)!

Interesting discussion, I have something to say too.

But let’s start "ab ovo".

The first form of Art, the Paleolithic Art, is around at least since 32000 years and is probably older. It is found all over the word from Europe to Australia and South Africa. Paleolithic Art is classified as either figurative—that is, depicting animals or humans, or nonfigurative, taking the form of signs and symbols. There are sculptures (or decorated portable objects) as well as paintings (cave art).
The meaning of Paleolithic Art is still under discussion. Perhaps it was used for magic rituals. Perhaps Shamanism derived from such rituals.

What is damned sure is that those are the first recordings of the human capacity to think abstract and to attempt to transmit those thoughts creating signs and /or symbols.
It wasn’t only decorative art, it was a form of written language, a written culture.

You see, Art was (and still should be) at midway between scientific knowledge and magic; it‘s similar to language and like language has didactic and practical meanings BUT it’s also a means to exercise a control, similar to magic, on the physical word, to immortalize it, to stop the time.
It was, I think, also a TOOL to understand the world and the himself, a help to focus one’s mind.

Together with the spoken language it helped the Homo Sapiens to develop his thinking and to communicate it. In a word, to create civilization.

Now, about Steve’s affirmation: "Appreciation of art and its elements is learned. If it's learned, it's not instinctive."

Well, when a newborn arrives in this world, he has an awful lot of abilities to learn.
He sees, but he has to learn WHAT he sees and to put order in it, to recognize faces, smiles. He has to learn to distinguish himself from the surrounding world, to learn that those are his hands, how to use them to feel objects, to grab them, to taste them. He learns how to articulate sounds and the meanings of other sounds…the first communications, body language, spoken language.
Give a toddler some colored pencils and paper and show him how to trace a sign. Wow, he will be fascinated by the possibility to make some sort of design, he will spend a lot of time in experimenting that. His first contact with Art, a tool for creative thinking.

So, Steve: yes, in my humble opinion, appreciation of art is learned but the stimulus to learn it (as the stimulus to learn language and other skills) is a sort of genetic wiring acquired in the last few 10k years whose aim is to help us to survive.


Posted by Steve Price on 02-11-2002 06:27 AM:

Hi Filiberto,

My (hardly ever humble) opinion matches yours to some extent. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind about the fact that the ability to learn is inherent. If it weren't, learning would be impossible. Likewise, the stimulus to learn must be inherent, too, by exactly the same reasoning.

Did the stimulus to learn art appreciation arise as a genetic trait 10,000 years ago? I don't know, although I'm open to evidence of this. Did it arise as a survival skill? I'd have to say that any genetic trait that arose and was retained most likely has survival value, so in the broadest sense, the stimulus to learn art appreciation most likely has survival value, or did have at some point. Whether it has anything to do with recognizing scorpions in the grass - that is, whether we can name the specific survival value it has/had - is another matter.


Steve Price