The Arts Are No Luxury!

Gene Schklair at a ceramics class. Photo by EngAGE

What good are the arts, anyway? 

I mean, in the grand scheme of things, the arts have to be considered a luxury, don’t they? We can’t reasonably be expected to put energy and resources into the arts until other, more basic needs are met, can we? Compared to eating, finding shelter and raising a family, for example, the arts play second fiddle. 

And yet, this second fiddle is played consistently on a daily basis by every culture in the world.  Why is that?  Why would a behavior that has no apparent biological utility be a universal characteristic of the human animal? Maybe more is going on than we realize.

Questions like, “What is the biological function of music or painting?” are the domain of a new field called neuroaesthetics, which uses the discipline of neuroscience to study aesthetic questions. The neuroscientist Semir Zeki, who has done as much as anyone recently to give life to this new field, suggests that the question is poorly conceived. As is often the case, the key to finding a good answer is to properly frame the initial question.

Take music, for example. To gain insight into the art of music, Zeki suggests that the question, “What is the purpose of music?” should be reframed as, “What is the purpose of sound?”1

Music has been described as organized sound. Musicians experiment with the properties of sound and explore how listeners are affected by different modes of organized auditory stimulation. Research by Nina Kraus of Northwestern University has shown that people who pay close attention to sound and become expert listeners, enhance the sound-processing architecture of their brains. They are better able to hear and analyze the soundscape in which they live, and this enhanced capacity transfers to processing of language and even mitigates age-associated hearing loss.2

From this perspective, the art of auditory processing (music) seems a bit more fundamental and important to our survival than first imagined.

Extending this reframing approach to other arts, we might find insight by exploring the notion that drawing is organized vision, dance is organized movement or that theatre is organized emotional intelligence. This perspective suggests that the arts exercise and enhance fundamental human capacities -- physical, mental and emotional behaviors that enable us interact successfully with our environment.

Perhaps the arts aren’t a luxury after all. 

The arts might turn out to be what evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould calls “exaptations,” traits that evolved for one purpose but ended up being used for another.3  Feathers are a good example of an exaptation. Feathers initially evolved to help regulate the body temperature of dinosaurs. They had nothing to do with flight. But as feathers evolved they serendipitously became useful for another purpose. The ability to fly clearly became advantageous to those animals that took advantage of this new behavioral capacity.

The cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene argues that new cultural inventions, like writing and other arts, come into existence by hijacking existing brain structures and using them for new purposes.4   Singing, for example, could only have developed in an organism with a brain that processes complex auditory information, plus a vocal apparatus capable of producing a wide variety of sounds.  This particular combination of traits appears only in birds and most extensively in human beings who also create tools that produce organized sound.

The human brain and body evolve in response to challenges from the environment. With the invention of culture, human beings began creating increasingly complex environments for themselves, setting up a feedback loop between culture and biology that accelerated development of both. We humans create ever more complex forms of cultural expression, which, in turn, drive the development and inventiveness of our physical and mental capabilities.

When we engage with increasingly complex forms of culture we trigger a self-reinforcing biological system, that I have characterized as the “nimble body, nimble mind feed-back loop”.5  Our nimble minds stimulate the development of ever-more nimble bodies, which in turn stimulate development of ever-more-nimble minds.

Our nimble bodies and nimble minds create elaborate forms of artistic expression that, in turn, enhance the creative abilities of the bodies and brains that employ them.  These positive feedback cycles fuel individual development and the evolutionary development of our species. 

I have become convinced that artistic (creative) behavior in human beings evolved by taking advantage of existing biological mechanisms -- mechanisms that are essential to the survival of every living being. In essence, these survival functions involve collecting important information about the environment and responding with actions that enhance the chances of survival. It can be argued that all complex human behavior is simply an elaboration of these fundamental survival activities. We interpret what is going on in the world and invent responses that will keep us alive and well.

The artistic impulse is an inherent drive to explore the environment through eyes, ears, touch, smell, taste and movement. Artistic expression is animated by the inner drive, what Gene Cohen called an “Inner Push”6 , to interact creatively with the environment and to invent more effective behavioral responses. Singing and dancing, in other words, are elaborations of the basic mechanisms of survival - they are ways of interpreting information about the environment and taking appropriate action in response. The exercise of these faculties strengthens our capacity to function in a complex world.

When we sing and dance we enhance the core biological and cognitive mechanisms of perception and movement. Consequently, individuals who engage in the arts become better at perceiving and responding to the world around them and are more likely to survive, secure necessary resources, mate, raise children and have fun doing it.

If artistic behavior had been a luxury item, evolutionary forces would have weeded them out of our behavioral repertoire. But, the arts have survived the evolutionary testing ground and have, in fact, become increasingly integral to human life. Artistic behaviors exist because they continue to shape the development of critical human capacities that enable us to interact successfully with an increasingly complex environment.

The arts are no luxury. Arts are survival-enhancing mechanisms that have been hard-wired into our brains and nervous system. Our brain rewards us with pleasure when we engage in the arts because it knows what is good for itself.  Our emotions are designed to encourage behaviors that keep us alive and make us increasingly capable of interacting successfully with the complex environments in which we exist.

What are the arts for? Survival! They keep the human body, brain and nervous system nimble and flexible enough to function well in the increasingly complex environment we have invented for ourselves.

Michael C. Patterson is a board member of NCCA, and is co-founder of MINDRAMP CONSULTING and Director of MINDRAMP’s Arts & Brain Initiative.

  1. Zeki, Semir (2001) Artistic Creativity and the Brain. Science, New Series, Vol. 293, No. 552
  2. Kraus, Nina (2013) “Step in Time: The Effects of Musical Experience on the Adult Brain.” presented at the Arts & The Brain series at Strathmore Music Center, Bethesda MD.
  3. Buss, David M., Martie G. Haselton, Todd K. Shackelford, et al. (1998) "Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels," American Psychologist, 53 (May): 533–548.
  4. Dehaene, Stanislas (2013) Inside the Letterbox: How Literacy Transforms the Human Brain. Cerebrum. Online at The Dana Foundation June 3.
  5. Patterson, Michael C (2014, in development) Nimble Bodies, Nimble Minds.
  6. Cohen, Gene, (2005) The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. New York. Basic Books.


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