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Good taste

philosophy

The widely accepted notion of taste is of a sociological concept defined as a person’s personal and cultural patterns of preference. Of what looks good and what is cool. Is there an objective measure of beauty? How does taste work?

Taste or more accurately aesthetic taste is emotional. It’s the ability to discern the pleasant and the polar opposite of the emotion of disgust. Like the other senses, we perceive pleasance, beauty and goodness as sensory signals. Some of us have better equipment just like how bloodhounds with three hundred million scent receptors have better sense of smell than the average dog with only two hundred million.

We would all agree taste is subjective. I wouldn’t be able to get everyone to agree with my idea of what’s beautiful. Unlike manners, there isn’t a universally-agreed objective standard of beauty we can measure our tastes against. So agreement-seeking humans resort to ineffective workarounds like the HiPPO, design-by-committee and focus groups.

How can we blame them? It’s an evolutionary impulse that we seek agreement. Groupthink is so wired into us that it is better to lose in togetherness than to upset the pecking order or worse, risk winning.

The illusion of objectivity

To avoid disagreement, we often turn to standards. We seek objectivity. Ancient Greek philosophy had the most influence on the western sense of what’s beautiful. Plato and Aristotle both agreed there exists a divine form of aesthetics that beautiful objects partake in, in order to be beautiful.

It’s foolish because there is no such thing as a true objective beauty. Even if the whole world agrees on one standard of beauty, it is still a universal subjective.

If a man says that canary wine is agreeable he is quite content if someone else corrects his terms and reminds him to say instead: It is agreeable to me,” because “Everyone has his own (sense of) taste”. The case of “beauty” is different from mere “agreeableness” because, “If he proclaims something to be beautiful, then he requires the same liking from others; he then judges not just for himself but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. – Immanuel Kant

The only problem with Kant’s statement is the word everyone. We need to recognize that aesthetic judgement requires agreement but it doesn’t have to be a universal one. Forget about divine standards. Instead of universal agreement, we only need group compatibility.

I propose defining good taste as the perceptivity to an object’s compatibility with a group. The group is the key here. The difficulty in getting a group to agree on something is inversely correlated with size and diversity of a group. We see that it’s harder for the general population (a larger more diverse group) to like Acid Rock than for hippies (a niche group).

Sensitivity

Taste evolves. Our tastes change as life circumstances change our health, temperament and moods. It’s evident taste is grounded in the tenets of biology. Taste is a sensory capacity. It includes the capacity to pick up stimuli signals and the range of these signals. Much like hearing.

A _highly sensitive person_ (HSP) is a person having the innate trait of high sensory processing sensitivity (or innate sensitiveness as Carl Jung originally coined it). According to Elaine N. Aron and colleagues as well as other researchers, highly sensitive people, who compose of about a fifth of the population, may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems.

The attributes of HSPs can be remembered as DOES:

  • Depth of processing
  • Over aroused (easily compared to others)
  • Emotional reactivity and high empathy
  • Sensitivity to subtle stimuli

Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being. Sensitivity, emotional reactivity and empathy are mutually reinforcing. Each grows the other. HSPs are known to have higher empathy. Several studies have found HSPs to have more mirror neuron activity (associated with empathy) and stronger emotional arousal than others when looking at pictures that are emotionally arousing, including happy and distressed faces.

Sensory Pathways

Sensory signals enter our sense organs and pass through the limbic system before reaching the neocortex for higher processing. In HSPs the amygdala which is located in the limbic system and responsible for emotional regulation, fear response and consolidation of memory, is hyper-responsive. Sounds sound louder, lights appear brighter. HSPs generally experience their environment more intensely. This neurological basis of high sensitivity suggests some of us are genetically and physically built to better pick up and process emotions. The amygdala also underlies empathy and allows for emotional attunement and creates the pathway for emotional contagion. The basal areas including the brain stem form a tight loop of biological connectedness, re-creating in one person the physiological state of the other. Psychologist Howard Friedman thinks this is why some people can move and inspire others.

From the sense organs to the limbic system to the neocortex, the entire neural pathway is responsible for aesthetic judgement. As sensory signals reaches the neocortex, they undergo further processing and emerges into our consciousness and we then form thoughts around them. This cortical processing enriches the initial emotional response to paint more meaning into our consciousness. The brain with high capacity for emotional response is like a skilled artist. High sensitivity brings in rich signals of colors and textures for the artist to paint into feelings we experience at a more conscious level. The more skilled the brain, the more signals it has the better it paints.

Another way of looking at it is to imagine the range of stimuli one can experience like the color gamut (how big the range of colors an output device can display) of a computer display.

Gamut

A more sensitive person is like a display with a higher gamut. The higher the gamut of a person, the more his gamut overlaps those of others and the more he can relate to the colors experienced by others.

Taste as aesthetic empathy

While not exactly mind-reading, empathy is the ability to feel and think what other people feel and think and relate to others. Since having good taste is very much the ability to make aesthetic judgements that others are likely to share, it’s not unreasonable to say good taste is aesthetic empathy.

Someone with good taste will most definitely be a highly sensitive person. The better the HSP’s artist mind can paint the wider and deeper his empathy will be. The capacity for emotional response is like water. Emotional experience is like dye. A spoonful of dye in a small cup of water is crowded. Pour a cup of dye in an ocean and you’ll find its molecules diffused across what feels like infinite space. Thus it feels like the ocean better understands the dye which it has completely assimilated.

My final point is being a HSP does not equate to having good taste. High sensitivity only serves as a potential. Having the colors does not mean one would paint well. Other factors, biological, psychological and intellectual play important parts as well. After all, one-fifth of the population are HSPs. It’s mad to think one of five of us have even any taste at all. I’d also like to make a bold claim that non-HSPs are unlikely to have good taste and I welcome you to challenge it.


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