Marcel of Joy: An Etherview with Ken Arneson

Last week, as part of my purposeful attempt to single-handedly destroy FanGraphs, I submitted a question for the reader’s consideration: “Knowing what we know about the brain, is it possible that we might start to measure how happy certain baseball events make us?” The question, I suggested, got at what Bill James regards as the raison d’etre of baseball: as a thing to be enjoyed.

A number of the commentariat said, “No, and you’re a jerk.” Some others were more forgiving, but also suggested that it was, at best, a fool’s errand. Two or three guys sent me disgusting photos of themselves in various Manet-inspired poses. (Please stop doing that.) And finally one guy, Ken Arneson, said that, while it might be impossible, he was trying real hard to do it and that the field of neuroesthetics was helping.

If the name Ken Arneson is familiar, it’s because he was the owner-operator of both Humbug Journal and Catfish Stew, both of which (a) the author discontinued earlier this year, and (b) ought to be required reading for this nation’s children. It’s on those sites that Arneson explores the “Why we watch” question — sometimes explicitly, sometimes not as much.

Arneson consented to be interviewed last Friday by means of EtherPad, a program that allows multiple users to create and edit a document. Hence, the “etherview.”

Finally, I should note that, in what follows, Arneson and I use some discipline-specific terminology. All of these terms are explained in a six-part post that Arneson wrote at Humbug called “Keeping Score in the Arts”, a sort of primer on the subject of neuroesthetics. It is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED that you take a gander at said piece.


Carson: Because I’m from New England — a.k.a. Land of the Bucklehat — and because we have rules about this in New England, I’d like to start off by exchanging pleasantries. By which, I mean to say, “Hello. How are you?”

Ken: I have a two-year-old who is currently refusing to exchange pleasantries, so I need to set a good example. So: Hi, I’m fine, thanks!

Carson: Well, actually, your two-year-old might serve as a good entree to our discussion. We’re here because — well, I’m here because I write for FanGraphs. The reason you’re here is because your work on Catfish Stew and Humbug Journal is very literally the work of genius.

As for the two-year-old, in one of your posts on Humbug you get into a discussion about habituation. Habituation, or lack of it, is the thing that makes peekaboo funny for a young person* — because he/she hasn’t figured out that, merely because your face is gone, that it’s not actually gone-gone…

What I mean to say is: Does your two-year-old still like peekaboo?

*Ken writes about the art of peekaboo here.

Ken: No, she’s mostly past peekaboo now. You have to play a pretty sophisticated form of peekaboo now for her to have much interest. But it’s a good place to start the study of why we like what we like.

Any theory on measuring our enjoyment of entertainment, such as a Linear Weights of Joy or some such thing, has to account for how our tastes change throughout our lifetimes.

Carson: Right. Like you mention in one of your posts that a person, when coming into contact with art, is always sort of trying to find some place between cliche and unhabituation (your phrase). It’s hard for an adult to like Miley Cyrus or whatever because the hooks she uses and the lyrics (I love you, life is so complicated, blah blah blah) are roughly the same as all the pop music before it. The adult already gets it.

On the other side, if a work taps into absolutely nothing that’s familiar, then it (i.e. the work of art) is merely lost on its viewer, listener, whatevs.

Ken: Yes. My two year old won’t understand how cool Tim Lincecum‘s pitching motion is. That goes right over her head. She does understand “throw” and “hit”. She’s got a lot of learning to go until she can understand that Lincecum’s pitching motion is unusual.

Carson: Restated: your child won’t understand how cool Lincecum’s pitching motion is, because she doesn’t know it from Adam (Wainwright’s pitching motion). There’s no point of reference there?

Ken: Right. To back up a bit, I started getting interested in the question of “Why do we like or dislike stuff” in college. I took a class in Comedy, thinking I’ll read some funny stories and have a good time. But my professor was obsessed with that question, and that class has stuck with me ever since.

The professor was convinced that the quality of the artwork was in the artwork itself. But I’ve since come to think that’s not quite right. Because the quality judgment depends on the audience. The two-year-old is going to think that Shakespeare sucks.

Carson: It’s true. Two-year-olds hate Shakespeare. They can barely even read!

Ken: My two-year-old thinks the greatest artwork in the world is an animated film with pandas who sing about potty training.

Carson: To be fair, that sounds kinda great.

Okay, to reiterate the “main point” of this. I wrote in my article that I’m surprised at how much time we spend answering the “how do you win” question as opposed to “why we watch” or “what we like” questions and b) that there is a lot of room to improve how we make the decision to watch one game versus another.

But, discussing children, I realize my 15-year-old brother, who plays all the sports in the world, can barely sit down long enough to watch a plate appearance of a baseball game. He’s a nice, smart kid, but we’re clearly watching two different things. At what point do our brains start develop a criteria for enjoying a game? Is it different for different people?

Ken: I think sports fans who visit sites like Fangraphs prefer to think about the “how do you win” question more than the average fan; that’s why they are there.

The great works of art work on multiple levels. They can work superficially on a first viewing, and keep giving you new and interesting things to see after multiple viewings. Mediocre works of art can be viewed maybe once or twice, but get boring after that. Bad works fail from the start.

Baseball is such a great sport because you can enjoy it at a 15-year-old level, but study it more and find brand new ways to enjoy it.

There comes a time, though, sometime in adulthood, where habituation (is this a novelty or not?) starts to take a back seat to classical conditioning (is this pleasurable or not?). You enjoy things now because you enjoyed them before.

My musical tastes froze when I had my first kid. I barely know any new music since 1997. I now mostly enjoy the music I listened to in my youth.

Carson: Benny Goodman? Patty Page?

Ken: My youth, not my father’s youth. I’m stuck in the 80s.

Carson: At Humbug you go into some depth describing the probable effect of art on the brain. You say that it’s a way for the Android Brain (which represents declarative memory) to talk with the Animal Brain (which represents nondeclarative memory). Now, I know you’re not wild about those terms now, necessarily, but the concept is interesting.

Essentially, art that doesn’t hit us on a gut level isn’t art at all.

Ken: Yes. At UC Berkeley, they’ve held an annual conference on neuroesthetics, of which I’ve attended a few. Neuroesthetics is a new science, which is basically the study of how the brain judges art. Attending the conferences kinda reminded me why I’m an engineer and not a scientist. They’re basically cataloging all the various components of art and brain science, but nobody seems to be in a hurry to theorize.

I’m not that patient, so I started taking what I had learned, and tried to theorize. Basically, my theory is this:

* We have two kinds of memory: declarative memory (which is conscious, and contains facts and events), and nondeclarative, or procedural memory (which is subconscious, and contains patterns and motor skills).

* Language is a tool for deliberately transferring declarative memories from one person to another.

* Art is a tool for deliberately transferring procedural memories form one person to another.

Carson: I want to connect that to baseball in a second. Before I do, though, I’m curious: What was the reaction to this stuff when you wrote it? This was March of 2004.

Ken: There wasn’t much reaction at all. “Oh, that’s interesting” was about it. But nobody engaged me on it. So I figure that either (a) I’m wrong, or (b) I’ll be like that guy who came up with plate tectonics and then was forgotten for 40 years or so.

Carson: Jerry Lewis?

Ken: Alfred Wegener.

Carson: Oh, right. I always get those guys mixed up.

Okay, so how this relates to baseball is… I mean, why is it that watching Roy Halladay‘s two-seamer “completes me” in a way that almost nothing else does?

Ken: When you’re watching Halladay’s two-seamer (or for me it’s B.J. Upton‘s swing) you’re using your procedural memory system. That’s the part of your brain that handles pattern recognition. That pattern is something that triggers a response that, at first, you view as highly interesting–that is, you’re not used to it, and it’s different enough each time that it still somehow surprises you each time you see it. Then as you see it more and more, you become classically conditioned to it–the initial pleasure begins to reinforce itself, and you want to see it again and again.

Carson: That idea of being surprised is interesting. The sociologist Barry Schawrtz discussed in his Ted Talk, “The Paradox of Choice” — he talks about how, on account of the there are so many of each product available now (chunky tomato sauce, old style tomato sauce, tex-mex tomato sauce) that it’s impossible to experience one of the most excellent feelings around — namely, the feeling of being pleasantly surprised. Instead, the consumer is always thinking, “Ah man, I would’ve probably been so much happier with the incredibly-similar-but-still-slightly-different tomato sauce.” The sense of regret is inevitable almost.

The poet Kenneth Koch championed surprise, as well. The poem “To You” is constantly surprising — and excellent for that reason.

Ken: Yes, but it’s not just surprise alone that makes us like something. It needs to both surprise AND fit the context. If I’m watching a game and the power goes out, that’s a surprise, but it usually won’t make me think the game has improved as a result. It kicks me out of the context instead of revealing something new about the context.

To create a new memory, you need two existing, unconnected neurons being fired by the same stimulus. A surprise that doesn’t match the context only fires the surprise neuron, not the context neuron. To put it another way, you need the stimulus to be simultaneously surprising AND not surprising, appropriate AND not appropriate.

That’s why peekaboo works. You’re there, but you’re not there.

Barry Bonds‘ home run feats are more surprising and impressive if you don’t have a clue that he took steroids, if you think what he did changes what you believe is actually humanly possible. Change the context, and the surprise goes away, and the pleasure with it.

Carson: What about Yuni Betancourt taking a walk? Because that would be really surprising.

Ken: Ha, yes. And if he did it to, say, win a pennant in a walk-off, it would be even more surprising. What a great story that would be.

Carson: Yes. Because it would also mean that the Royals had not only finished over .500 but made the playoffs…

Okay, well what I like about you, Mr. Arneson, is your willingness to produce some theories despite a lack of empirical evidence. I mean that honestly. It seems as though neuroscience and -esthetics is not prepared to say exactly what’s happening in the brain that allows us to enjoy this or that. Thing is, that doesn’t matter to me, Carson Cistulli, very much. What I need to know is: How does neuroesthetics help me right now (regardless of if the science is imperfect or not)?

So, to the matter at hand, my original concern: How do I know what game to watch tonight? What game is most likely to provide the certain experiences (plate discipline in batters, movement on pitches, etc) that I like? Is it possible to work towards a Linear Weights of Joy?

Ken: I can afford to theorize because I’m not a professor, and I have no career to damage by being dead wrong.

I think it is possible to works towards a Linear Weights of Joy, as long as you remember that where we’re taking the measurement isn’t on the field, it’s in your head. You have to measure Event X for Audience Y. And I’m not sure how you collect the measurement for Event X.

As for Audience Y, I suppose you could do a PECOTA-like method, where you cluster similar audience types, and then try to figure out which audience cluster you fall in, and then project which events you’d like from there. It would be like collaborative filtering technology, I guess, or the formula Malcolm Gladwell wrote about.

Carson: Do you think the appeal of certain baseball events varies that widely? It seems like certain things (i.e. Upton’s swing) are just inherently great.

Ken: It will vary quite a bit if you compare a two-year-old to a nine-year-old to a fifteen-year-old to an adult. But maybe not within the adult population, I don’t know. Perhaps, though, to keep things simple, you should start with a Marcel of Joy, and work your way up to PECOTA of Joy at a later date.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

26 Responses to “Marcel of Joy: An Etherview with Ken Arneson”

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  1. Matt B. says:

    As George Bush once proudly claimed was a Texas expression:

    “That was awfully windy.”

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    • Doug Melvin says:

      “Carson: Because I’m from New England — a.k.a. Land of the Bucklehat — and because we have rules about this in New England, I’d like to start off by exchanging pleasantries. By which, I mean to say, “Hello. How are you?””

      Where’d you get that idea?

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  2. mike says:

    I can’t wait for the comments on this one.

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  3. Kevin says:

    I should really start paying attention to the author name on the front page before I click.

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  4. Teej says:

    I’m really starting to enjoy Carson’s posts, if only to watch the meltdown afterward.

    Interesting interview, even if it didn’t get into baseball as much as I would have liked. Fun stuff to think about, though.

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  5. IdahoMariner says:

    this…was awesome. I have a two-year-old, I love to WATCH baseball and I love to think about stats and how they reflect what I am about to watch or what I just watched and what it is I love about the game, and I love art and I love people willing to go out on a limb with a theory, even if all the empirical evidence isn’t in. I would say that this took me straight from a Marcel of Joy to a PECOTA of Joy in nothin’ flat. Awesome.

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  6. Jim says:

    This is by far the most interesting of these posts, even if it’s still only tangentially based on baseball. The ‘stimulus fires two neurons which were previously unconnected’ is interesting, but I’d like to see more of it.

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  7. Michael says:

    This worked for me. I do look forward to the stream of people for whom it didn’t work, and the chaos that erupts afterward. Good stuff Carson, keep it up (most of it, at least, I’m not always a fan). I loved the initial piece, and this interview piece tied fairly nicely into it and also sparked some recesses in my mind that like the discussion about the process of thought and emotion.

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  8. Matthew McExpos says:

    See, as I was reading this, all I could think about was Joe Posnanski’s theory of movie enjoyment (i.e. how we should rate a film based on expectations, then based on results, and take the difference between those two numbers). Why is it that all the baseball sites I read are giving me more interesting paper fodder than any of the film-related stuff I read?

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  9. big baby says:

    You couldn’t incorporate another Wilco song into the title?


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  10. I enjoyed the discussion. I took a ‘Philosophy of Art’ class in my most recent year in college (I will never utter the phrase ‘last year in college’ for fear that it might grow to be true). The class itself was as much a part of the professor as it was an academic offering. It started with the concept of ‘what is art’ and eventually came around to, ‘okay, that is art – so what?’. It helped that early in the semester we viewed and discussed the Simpsons episode where Homer becomes a ‘outsider artist’.

    With the idea that we embrace so much with what we view I would be interested in the next few steps. How we view it. Who we view it with. How our view changes over time. The concept of viewing vs experiencing.

    What brings this to mind is that growing up I watched Oakland A’s games on TV with Monte Moore blathering in my ear. While on the radio (especially in the car in the 90’s and on) I was able to hear Bill King. As I grew older Bill King became the option I preferred over the television talking heads. It’s as true as ever that Ray Fosse annoys me to the point I do not enjoy watching games on television unless the sound is muted – but I am robbed of the few sounds that seep in from the crowd microphones.

    Is out joy less elastic in two dimensions, even with an HD picture, than seeing it first hand? Is it affected by the distractions or should our joy make us look like ‘the Humble Narrator’ Alex DeLarge in the final scene of A Clockwork Orange’?

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  11. Vode says:

    This was terrific.

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  12. Ed Nelson says:

    Loved this. I also have a 2 year old that Iove to watch baseball with. What I have noticed is that we both enjoy the game on a completely different level but love it just the same.

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  13. Steven says:

    This must be what a lobotomy feels like…..

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  14. Chris Miller says:

    Great interview!

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  15. Ken Arneson says:

    Aw, rats. I was hoping to be torn to shreds a bit more than this. I suppose a “windy lobotomy” will have to do.

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  16. the Kardinal says:

    Carson – keep them coming. I’m really enjoying them.

    But I could help but notice in the article, Ken states why you are receiving scorn for your articles:

    “To [create a new, positive memory] you need the stimulus to be simultaneously surprising AND not surprising, appropriate AND not appropriate.”

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  17. Nick says:

    Awesome stuff guys.

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  18. Tim says:

    Where did all the ranters go?

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  19. James says:

    Anything thought-provoking = worthwhile.

    This = thought-provoking.

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  20. lookatthosetwins says:

    I think one of the problems of “Linear Weights of Joy” or something along those lines is the fact that people take joy in very different, sometimes opposite things. I love watching Joe Mauer hit, much more than I like(d) watching, say, Vlad in his prime. I know many people who would completely disagree with that. I like watching Pujols hit more than Prince Fielder. I enjoy the machine-like consistensy, an unwavering and amazing ability to systematically beat anything a pitcher tries to do to them.

    As far as pitchers go, I like changeups. Why do I like changeups? Did Johan condition me to like them? Probably. Either way, watching a pitcher get a good hitter to look like me by throwing a good changeup is about the best it gets for me. Some people like great 2-seamers, some people hard curves.

    I’m rambling, but I just think for the most part, people like watching good players. They like watching good swings and good pitches. That’s obvious. But why we pick up on certain things is hard to get at. Some people like “unconventional” ways of doing things, I prefer machine-like consistency.

    What does all that have to do with anything? I’m not sure.

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  21. Bluebleeder says:

    a bit late but DANG! this is awesome!!

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