Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. This bonus episode accompanies the second episode of Season 3 “Wasn’t she crazy?” As we talk to our experts looking for answers to the questions for the show, we run into fascinating things sometimes that don’t quite fit within the main episode-but we still want to share them with you all. We asked Dr. Anjan Chatterjee an existential question, and also to explain a little more about his field of neuroaesthetics as it might apply to a place like the Cottage.
In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)
Callie Hawkins: Hi everyone – This is Callie and Joan from Q&Abe, a podcast by President Lincoln’s Cottage.
Joan Cummins: As we talk to our experts looking for answers to the questions for the show, we run into fascinating things sometimes that don’t quite fit within the main episode – but we still want to share them with you all.
CH: This bonus episode accompanies episode 3.2, Wasn’t she crazy?, so if you have not yet listened to that episode, that might be a good place to start.
JC: As we were talking with Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, I had a question for him that got a little… existential. I apologize for the hugeness of this question in advance… but – it’s similar to my question about emotions – but like, how much is our brain who we are?
Anjan Chatterjee: I mean, you’ll get a biased answer from me. I think we are entirely our brain. I mean, you know, someone doesn’t fall in love with you because of your liver or spleen.
Callie: That’s amazing. That’s amazing.
AC: You know, and-and you know, but also I want to be very clear what I mean by the brain. That the brain is – everything gets funneled through our brain in terms of how we’re interacting with the environment, what our emotions are, what our introspections are, you know, what our reactions to our family members are, to people we dislike. All of that is getting hashed out in the brain so it’s not some self-contained little bubble, it is really the sort of central hub that is made up based on neural and genetic predispositions, our personal experiences, our education, our histories, and how we’re interacting in the world. Right? So, that’s the, that’s the nexus of all of that, which is why, again, I mentioned how I think the nature/nurture framing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It- In addition, when people, sort of, try to argue for culture versus biology, that also doesn’t make sense. Because culture still is working through your brain. Right, it’s not, again, it’s not working through your spleen or your liver or your kidney. So, just to make this incredibly concrete, reading and writing are cultural artifacts. For the vast majority of human history, people didn’t know how to read, people didn’t know how to write. It still is the case that many, many people in the 21st century don’t know how to read and write. Nonetheless, if you do know how to read and write, there is a specific part of the brain, and I alluded to this earlier, in our visual brain, that is called the visual word form area. So this is the part of our visual system that looks at these arbitrary patterns of strokes and curves and says: this is making up a word, right? So, is writing hardwired in the brain? The answer is yes. Is it a cultural artifact? The answer is yes. So-So just to use that as an example to say that, that, again, these dichotomies of nature versus nurture, culture versus biology really break apart, when you start asking very specific kinds of questions.
JC: We also asked Anjan to explain a little more about his field, neuroaesthetics, and how that might apply to a place like the Cottage.
AC: Neuroaesthetics is generally the study of aesthetic experiences, and with the lens of biology. So that’s basically what neuroaesthetics is. We, in my center, have focused on vision. You can enter into aesthetic experiences from any sensory modality, right? Music is a classic one, right? So that’s your sound. You can think about smell: perfumes, fragrances. Taste, you know, food for most people is, typically a consistent aesthetic experience, if you’re lucky. You know, so every sensory modality is a way to get in there. We focused on vision, and vision, one way to think about it is the way our visual system carves out the world is to, to separate out people, places, and things. And visual word forms but I’ll set that aside. So with people were interested what are the aesthetics of people, how do we react to people, we-it turns out that we’re constantly making character judgements just on how people look. Ah, you know, this has all kinds of relevance right now in terms of implicit biases and how people react to other people based on facial features, skin tones, the whole nine yards revolve around that. With things – I’ll come back to places – with things it’s really about design of objects and art work. It remains a profound mystery why, why we might spend a good amount of time, and some people a fair amount of money, looking at flat pieces of canvases with a bunch of paint splattered on it, right? You don’t eat it, you don’t have sex with it, it’s not clear why this, we should care – but we care, right? So that’s, that’s another area we’re interested in, what is the nature of engagement for the art and why does this matter? And for us there’s some urgency to this question because, as, since you guys are in museums, you’re well aware, that as soon as there are funding cuts the first things to go are arts and museums. So during the, pandemic Philadelphia has, basically the mayor, who is generally a progressive mayor, has cut all the funding for arts and cultural programs for the next year. Right. So, it happens in public high schools, the first things to go are art and music. So I think there’s a – there, for those of us who believe, there’s a compelling reason to try to convince the unbelievers of the error of their ways.
AC: So, getting back to place, which I think is more of what your question is. We are interested in what the, what the built environment and the natural environment has contributed to our sense of well-being. One thing you will see a lot in the literature, and one that I personally happen to believe, but for which there is relatively little hardcore scientific evidence, which is there is this idea of, you’re out in nature, that there is a, a kind of restorative quality to nature, right? This is widely believed. And the problem with the statement, even if it is true, is how would you demonstrate that? So, it is the case that people who – there are some inner city kids that have never been out in nature, for them it’s a scary place. Like, why would you go out there? Right, there are all kinds of critters and it’s dark and you don’t know what’s going on, right? So for them it’s not a safe place, it’s not a restorative place. So, the question for that sensibility often is how do you sh- how do you prove it? And, so while many people and I would put myself in that category, experience that, there are different kinds of natural landscapes. So, I love desert landscapes. Very different than people who like, like mountaintops. Very different than people who like being out in the middle of the ocean. Right, so there are all kinds of questions that a scientist might ask. Like what is – what’s the, what’s the ingredient there? The, the research we’ve done, it appears that there are three factors in the built environment that people are responsive to. And what, what we refer to those are coherence: which is, if you’re in a built space, how organized does it seem to be? How organized versus chaotic? Right? That’s the axis. The second one is something we call fascination. And that is, if you’re in an environment, does it interest you? Do you feel like you want to explore it? Do you want to know more about it? Which is the key ingredient for museums, right? You want people in there to like say, “I’m in the space, I want to learn more,” right? And the third one is something we’re calling hominess. And that’s the sense that you can be in a coherent and beautiful fascinating place and not feel at home. On the other hand, you know, there are some spaces you walk in, boom, you feel like, yeah I belong here. And there may be all sorts of cultural reasons why some people might feel more belonging than others in certain kinds of spaces. But hominess also seems important. And so this is an extraordinarily long winded way to get to my real answer, which is, it could be that for the Lincolns, this Cottage was really, really high on the hominess part, for them. Whereas like, being in Washington, you know, it doesn’t have, perhaps didn’t the same kind of quality for them, in a way that the pomp and the fascination was all ramped up over there but maybe not the hominess, is my guess.
CH: Yeah, and I think, you know, they moved out here not long after their little boy Willie had died. You know, and in describing the place, Mrs. Lincoln talked about, you know, really the quiet of it, she said, “when we’re in sorrow, quiet is very necessary to us.” And I think in many ways it probably, it may have reminded them of their frontier roots. It is wooded, there are long walks and pathways and things like that and so, I think that, that really resonates with me – the idea of hominess, I think is, is probably spot on from, from what we know from the historical record. That’s interesting. Thank you! We hope you all are in a place where you are able to find a sense of hominess right now. We’ll see you in a week with our next full episode!
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, and Callie Hawkins, with backup from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage, including the National Endowment for the Humanities. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit us at lincolncottage.org. You can also write to us at [email protected].
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!