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 has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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