If you want to know why the arts are important, get a load of what's happening to the dismal science. The dismal science is what some people, including economists, call economics. My dictionary says that economics is the study of the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. Throughout the 20th century, this study has been based on the notion that people tend to make economic choices based on what they think is in their best self-interest.
Neuroeconomists are incorporating discoveries made in psychology and neuroscience in their understanding of our economic behavior. They use a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging to actually see what happens in the brain when decisions are being made.
"It's the economy, stupid." When James Carville taped that sign to the wall in Clinton headquarters in 1992, he was arguing that people would vote based on what they thought was best for their bank accounts.
But self-interest turns out to be a complicated thing.
A recent article in Business Week called "Why Logic Often Takes a Backseat" is about the emerging study of neuroeconomics. Economists have tended to create theories on the assumption that our economic decisions are based on rational thinking associated with the brain's prefrontal cortex. But if people are discontented or believe that they are being treated unfairly, brain scans show that a small area deep inside the brain called the anterior insula is stimulated. The effect is said to be comparable to smelling a dead skunk. The rational self-interest associated with the prefrontal cortex is no match for this. A more primitive sort of behavior takes over. As Colin Camerer, an economist at the California Institute of Technology, is quoted as saying, "In some ways, modern economic life for humans is like a monkey driving a car."
If you've been late on a credit card payment, received a hospital bill or, for that matter, filled your gas tank lately, you know what he means.
Neuroeconomists are incorporating discoveries made in psychology and neuroscience in their understanding of our economic behavior. They use a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging to actually see what happens in the brain when decisions are being made. When people have been scanned inside MRI machines, neuroeconomists have found two parts of the brain operating in radically different ways. Rational, long-term thinking takes place in the prefrontal cortex. But for short-term decisions - the impulses demanding immediate gratification - the limbic system takes over.
Neuroeconomics may help explain what happened in the last election. In the weeks leading up to November, many Democrats were confident they would prevail in a close race because, in the end, a majority of people would vote in favor of their self-interest. The Dems constantly hammered on themes that showed how Bush's economic policies benefited the rich at the expense of almost everyone else. John Kerry spoke directly to our prefrontal cortex.
George Bush, on the other hand, kept tickling the anterior insula. He convinced people that a tax cut today made deep cuts tomorrow in education, health care, veterans' benefits and environmental protection a good deal. Most of all, by emphasizing the war on terror, he made fear and insecurity the primary focus of the presidential race. When election day finally rolled around, swing voters put their rational self-interest aside and voted for Bush.
Ironically, now that Bush has conditioned us to react in terms of fear and immediate gratification, he's finding it hard to sell his long-term plan for privatizing Social Security. When we shift focus from our anterior insula to the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of our brains can see that what he's proposing doesn't add up.
Neuroeconomics suggests that as long as we feel we're being treated unfairly, our ability to make rational decisions will be seriously compromised - and we will continue to make bloviators like Chris Matthews, Hannity and Colmes and Bill O'Reilly rich. Legitimate debate, objectivity and consensus-building suffer so long as the anterior insula dominates.
But things don't have to fall apart just because our rational discourse is going through the equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Educators know that people have many ways of learning. We have even more ways of expressing ourselves.
The arts, which have a way of creating logics of their own, can be an end-around on rational discourse, particularly when our ability to discourse rationally breaks down. Works of art speak to us as individuals and also act as bridges connecting us with everyone else in that community we call the audience. Art makes us less lonesome.
This can make us, if not happy, a little less pissed-off.
Which, as the neuroeconomists might say, makes rational self-interest possible again.
Your frontal cortex likes that.
Art, with apologies to Congreve, has ways to soothe the savage brain.