Why Beauty will Save the World: A Brain-Culture Interaction

“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order;  to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”


From a complexity perspective, human society can be regarded as a complex system composed of heterogeneous and simultaneously interacting human agents. Being a part of a larger higher-order system (ecosystem), global society should continuously learn and evolve as a whole in order to better fit with its ever-changing environment and maintain its identity (existence) over time.  To achieve this creative state of collective learning and adaptation, “healthy societies… have to keep order and chaos in balance”, to “reach that elusive, ever-changing balance between freedom and control” (1).

In the Western society built on “the belief in personal agency that underlay Greek curiosity and the invention of science” (2) individual freedom is a natural right so that new ideas (chaos) spontaneously emerge from human learning and interactions.  The main challenge, however, consists in achieving a kind of social order that would be not detrimental to individual freedom for learning and creativity but still guide human behavior in a socially consistent way.

Role of Cultural DNA

Researchers in artificial intelligence suggest that the complex state of collective behavior—where complex systems are “able to carry out the most complex computations” (3)—requires “a kind of common code, or protocol” that provides a basis for meaningful communication among adaptive agents (4). While in biological systems the universal code for cellular interactions is encrypted in the DNA molecule, in social systems the common code for human interactions is embedded in ‘cultural DNA’ (5) or human culture, ‘a rich complex of myths and symbols that implicitly define a people’s beliefs about their world and their rules for correct behavior’ (6).

Unlike biological genes, cultural memes—social norms and conventions—are transmitted ‘during the process of education and socialization, from generation to generation’ (7) when ‘repeated exposure to moral exemplars’ develop beneficial moral emotions (8) or challenging socio-emotional experiences make ‘unconscious internal working models…more complex’ (9). These socially transmitted ‘internalized reflexes’ play a critical role in the process of mental simulation, allowing individuals to learn the potential consequences of their choices ‘without the risks of performing the actions’ (10). Without emotionally salient learning experiences and moral role modeling, human individuals lack the background or somatic (emotion-laden) knowledge to assess the appropriateness of a given action (11).

Emotion as the critical regulatory function in biological and social systems

To put it differently, the process of cultural evolution is built on the pre-existing processes of biological evolution where emotion plays the central role in the self-regulation of complex living organisms. As “a biologically ancient self-regulatory sensory system”, human feelings and emotions encode self-regulatory information (from protein receptor complexes to complex social emotions) which is “fundamental to optimal physical, mental, and social health” (12). Moreover, emotion-related processes have been shown to be paramount for the evolution of human behavior (13); social information processing and adaptive social cognition (14), moral behavior in animals (15) and humans (16,17); effective leadership (18, 19), social entrepreneurship (20,21), employee performance (22,23), creativity (24,25) and radical change in organizations (26).

Given the all-pervasive role of emotion for the performance and evolution of social systems, humanistic culture contains important socio-emotional information for an optimal brain development and functioning (27). Just as the biological organism needs a healthy nutrition for an optimal growth and development, the maturing human brain requires an adequate emotional stimulation to reach its full maturity (28). Without ‘a sophisticated, high quality cultural environment in which to develop there will be vast reaches of our somatic, especially neural, organizational space that we cannot use because it is not accessible to us’(29).

Positive emotions and development of human brain

According to developmental neurosciences, the human brain is not fully developed till the age of 20-23 years old— its higher-order cortical structures responsible for “managing volitional acts develop slowly, and consequently have a very long critical period” (30). During this critical period of maturation or “window of opportunity”, the neural circuits of the brain are particularly malleable and receptive to new learning and experiences that shape its basic neurocognitive architecture. While emotion is critical for “neuronal self-organization” or structural changes in the developing brain (31), positive emotions are particularly important and “necessary for more complex self-organization’ of the human brain (32).

Positive emotions have known to broaden the scope of people’s attention (33), enhance their cognitive flexibility and creative problem-solving (34).  As one researcher has resumed:

“[…] the positive signals offer far more than simple good feelings and short-term rewards: They “broaden and build” and “inspire and rewire” the mindscape and social landscape, expanding our empathic boundaries, moving us to bond with others, to “mend, tend, and befriend”,“shift and persist” during formidable challenges… They both signal novel developmental opportunities and reflect optimal self-regulation, the “self-control” that predicts health, wealth and even public safety…Successful development of the right-track positive emotions all contribute to an integrated and meaningful sense of identity and a passionate humanitarian conscience by adolescence, as well as loving intimacy, generosity, and compassion in adulthood” (35).

By providing an optimal stimulation of higher-order emotion-processing brain structures, humanistic cultural artifacts including arts, imaginative literature, story-telling, myths, etc. develop human sensitivity to moral beauty and excellence and thus expand people’s cognition beyond their own self-interest (36). Specifically, social psychologists argue that a regular exposure to moral beauty (e.g., morally beautiful acts of gratitude or courage) elicits an emotional response of moral elevation (a warm, pleasant feeling in the body) that “may motivate people to become better human beings, and may increase the frequency of unselfish and prosocial behavior”(37).

Recent advances in cognitive neurosciences confirm that emotionally charged writings such as poetry or music stimulate emotion-related brain regions involved in memory and introspection (38), literary fiction enhances empathy (39) and perspective-taking (40), while reading a novel (41) and visual art production (42) increase psychological resilience and functional brain connectivity over time.

Humanistic culture vs. Social reductionist science

While humanistic culture is critical for realizing the full potential of human individuals for ethical conduct and adaptive social behavior, complexity scholars argue that the emergence and ‘astonishing success’ of classical science from the Age of Enlightenment created a ‘cultural polarization’ between science and the humanities (43). By imprisoning human beings “in the physical world described by observable variables,” reductionist classical “science has revised man’s basic idea of himself in relation to nature…and eroded the foundations of moral thought… He was stripped of responsibility for his acts, since each human action was preordained prior to the birth of species, and was reduced to an isolated automaton struggling for survival in a meaningless universe” (44).

The gloomy, pessimistic vision of human nature epitomized by neoclassical economics invaded the traditional field of management science, while introducing a ‘narrow model of human behavior’ and ‘negative moral evaluations’ (45). This deviation of social reductionist science from humanistic cultural heritage “accumulated through centuries and millennia of interaction with nature and with human culture” (46) might explain the “moral deprivation” in business and financial domains (47) that is amplified over time via positive feedback loops of human interactions and leads to the global sustainability challenges (e.g., social inequality, economic crises, radical movements, pollution, climate change, etc.).


As the most complex emergent structure, human society requires its adaptive agents—human beings—to accommodate and transcend themselves, to develop ‘devices which can cope with greater complexity’ (48). These neurobiological mechanisms—”the neuronal representation of the wisdom”— can be only developed and activated in a healthy human culture that transmits ethical code of behavior—through exposure to moral beauty—during the process of education and socialization (49). While humanistic emotion-laden knowledge is critical for an optimal brain development and functioning,  classical reductionist science had introduced a ‘value-free’ negative information (a materialistic view of nature and human nature) that compromises the transmission of universal ethical knowledge or “the common code” for human interactions.

To create the conditions for an adaptive and sustainable human society, modern business education should be reconstructed by replacing outdated economic theories with positive examples of moral and business excellence, with inspirational models of moral beauty that would be replicated and become a reality through the self-fulfilling mechanism between management theories and business practices (50).

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Related posts:

The Triune Brain: Evolutionary Foundations for Human Goodness
What Makes us Human? Nature vs. Nurture of Human Morality
Emotion vs. Reason: The Neurobiological Architecture of Human Nature


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