That Gut Feeling Is Right – Art & The Visceral (Vagus) Nerve

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‘What is art?’ is nowadays a joke question. But art for actual living things is no joke: approach and avoidance—to beauty and from ugliness; to food and from danger—are the most basic of human and animal activities. And one single nerve from the brain to our internal organs carries more than its share of work: vagus, the tenth cranial nerve, is even implicated in our transition from an unconscious to a conscious state.

No matter how many forms art can take—artists are always pushing the boundaries and we get confused, unnecessarily. Art is basically a process that starts as a response to a feeling, an emotion that is triggered by an experience, an encounter—and the artist’s desire to share it with others. * It is a social activity that binds us together as a group, a civilization. From this process, each artist would express his feelings in a way that he knows well and sees fit: painting, sculpture, installation, performance… or the commercially-manufactured urinal that made Duchamp famous a century ago. ** The process can also produce music, dance, poetry,  or a book, a film…art can manifest itself in endless forms. It is a basic human impulse.

Most think of art as beautiful and pleasing and that only humans are capable of producing and appreciating it. But where did this pleasure–seeking impulse come from? A hungry baby feels pleasure when he gets warm milk and his mother’s embrace. These are deep, primitive emotions rooted in need and survival, with obvious selective advantage in our evolution.

From these unconscious emotions, the realization of the artwork itself would of course involve many conscious decisions by the artist. But for art to be good—authentic—the initial impulse must be genuine (and unique). It cannot be a response to make more of the same because the first piece had sold well. Andy Warhol commented on that in his repetitions and “factory” productions and celebrity worship. Lesser artists take Warhol literally and make millions.

Since Freud (Austrian, 1856-1939) wrote about unconscious emotions and their evolutionary origin, inspired by Darwin (British, 1809-1882), art has taken a shift. It went from the classical realist depiction of people or landscape, often illustrating religious stories, to a viewer-generated perspective. For example, Impressionist artists like Monet intensely examined and analyzed our perception of color and light. It led to Picasso’s experiments of multiple viewpoints around 1910—his fractured figures of Cubism. It’s now the ‘me’ that’s important in art—what ‘I’ see—not the top-down academy-approved paintings of the past; and the proliferation of art forms can no longer be contained.

Advances in neuro-biology in the last twenty years have made the scientific study of our perception possible. However, most discussions of art perception today concentrate on the eyes and the brain but are missing a most important part—our body—that visceral reaction. (The brain is a part of our body!)

What is that gut feeling? Yes, the gut is truly the seat of our emotions. It is practically all unconscious because our digestion is run by the autonomic nervous system of which the vagus is a part, so that we can’t consciously stop digestion and absorption if left to our will, or stop the heart. The digestive system is closely controlled together with the action of the heart—during ‘fight or flight’ situations: our heart pounds and blood is diverted from the intestines to the muscles.

What I am saying is that emotional response to an encounter starts with the gut and the heart—automatically and under the influence of the jack-of-all-trades vagus (think vagabond). The vagus originates in the brainstem and sends branches to, and receives feedback from all internal organs: heart, lung, liver, stomach, intestine, digestive glands… etc. Not only that, it sends motor branches (conscious) to our jaw and voice box for chewing and talking (not at the same time, please), and of course, singing. The vagus thus controls not just our internal state but its expressions as speech, song, sigh, and facial communications. This is where humans acquired their social inclinations and succeeded as a race—and where arts come from and why they are so important to us.

Here is the evolutionary explanation: the vagus in reptiles is a simple nerve to respond to threat—you’ve seen it, the salamander often freezes and feigns death under threat; and its heart slows to conserve energy for a long haul. It’s a primitive response that can still happen to some people (the deer in the headlight) but most of us prepare to fight or run—a new development in evolution that helps us become winners. This happened with the vagus becoming more elaborate, getting new functions to keep a constant modulating brake on the heart (heartbeat is self-generated by the heart’s pacemaker) and to allow it to accelerate when needed. (Vagal stimulation slows the heart and is used to treat anxiety and depression).

Recycle, recycle—evolution is a serious recycler. Remember the gill slits in fish? That’s where both food and oxygen pass through (digestion, respiration and circulation). As animals leave the ocean to live on land, it’s those gill arches with all their muscle and nerve connections that were re-used to form our pharynx and larynx for breathing and talking. And the heart? It’s now connected to our emotional expressions (via the vagus)—literally and figuratively—we all know about that dry throat, that choking feeling, the stomach rising… and that pounding heart. Yes, all thanks to the vagus nerve.

So the vagus has a lot to do with our emotions, and art. And we are now just a tiny step closer to knowing why art is important—it is literally food and an emotional safety net for all of us—a survival tool. ***

NB   The information in this piece draws partly from Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory.

*      See my post here on the art of art viewing.

**   The problem with the urinal is, for me, that once I get the punch line, there’s no need to look at the piece anymore. This is quite true of all highly mental conceptual art without a strong, original visual (and visceral) appeal. It risks becoming an icon, an artificial and arbitrary dictator of meaning.

*** See also my previous post on how universities are emphasizing their visual arts departments.

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