A lot of our fellow science bloggers covered this year’s Nobel Prizes in medicine, physics, and economics. So, let me take the opportunity to congratulate Orhan Pamuk, the recipient of this year’s literary prize. The literary prize is often critized for being controversial, and most people agree that not all the recipients over the years have deserved the prize (Pearl S. Buck, anyone?). The criteria for awarding the literary prize is very different from the criteria for awarding the scientific prizes, though. Whereas it is possible to meassure a scientist’s contribution more or less objectively, according to how accepted his findings are, over time, to the scientific community, literary prizes are awarded for the perceived aesthetic value of a book, and aesthetic value is always in the eye of the beholder. We know this not only from the countless top ten lists floating around on the internet, invariably different!, but also from a century of experimental testing. It is simply impossible to find a work of art universally adored by all humans on this planet. (There might be some universal body features, such as facial traits, deemed pleasant or attractive by everybody, but that’s another story.)
Why is this so? Well, a number of imaging studies have begun to cast light on which parts of the brain are involved in attaching aesthetic value to works of art. It turns out that aesthetic value chiefly stems from a network of subcortical, limbic and frontal regions, including the caudate nucleus, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex. The workings of these structures may be under influence of several factors: personality (cf. the Hariri studies we have been discussing here on the blog), expertise, mood, age, task, stimulus complexity – and, of course, cognitive factors may modulate them in various ways. We don’t know yet how aesthetic values are formed in detail – and, thus, we don’t know yet why people’s taste differ – but the upshot of the current research is, that a particular aesthetic judgment (Orhan Pamuk is Nobel material!) is the consequence of a rather complex neural process, malleable over time.
Then, why should we give out literary prizes? Some critics have lamented that, since aesthetic values really can’t be determined objectively, aesthetic prizes is really an attempt to impose value. I suppose there is something correct about this view; we fight all the more over aesthetic value because it can’t be settled objectively. This is not always a bad thing, though. As the saying goes, a big prize may attract attention to an underappreciated author or artist. So literary prizes may have a function, even if they are basically without merit. At least, since I think Pamuk is a great novelist, I am happy that he got the Nobel!
A final word on aesthetic value. Many of today’s articles mention Snow as Pamuk’s chef d’oevre, probably because of its political content. To new readers, though, I would recommend starting with The Black Book and My Name is Red. These two books are, according to my reward system, Pamuk’s undisputable masterpieces!