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Why ceasing to be creative is a mistake

Even drawing stick figures has its benefits.

  • Many of us stop making art at a young age, convinced, perhaps, that we just don't have the talent for it.
  • This belief, however, may be wrong, and the benefits that producing art can bring aren't contingent on talent.
  • Is creating art an activity that all of us should pursue? Can artistic skill be taught?

When we think of life skills, we usually think of things like learning to cook, becoming financially literate, learning to de-escalate conflict, or cultivating our emotional intelligence. We don't typically think of becoming better artists as a life skill. Indeed, artistic talent is seen as something innate — Some people are artists, and some people are not.

However, for those of us who profess to have no artistic talent whatsoever, it may be that cultivating this skill is even more important than for those who have, allegedly, "innate" artistic talent. So, is creating art a life skill? What kind of benefits can it bring? And, crucially, can it be taught, or is the act of creating something limited only to the lucky few?

Our innate love of art

In a cave in Indonesia, there are outlines of human hands traced in paint. To date, these tracings are the oldest example of art, dating back nearly 40,000 years ago. Human beings don't consistently perform an activity for 40,000 unless its hardwired into us, and making art is something that is as human as communicating, laughing, or breathing air.

In an April interview with the Harvard Gazette, Dr. Ellen Winner, a psychologist who has studied art, said:

"My best guess is that art itself is not a direct product of natural selection, but is a byproduct of our bigger brains — which themselves evolved for survival reasons. Art is just something we cannot help but do. While we may not need art to survive, our lives would be entirely different without it. The arts are a way of making sense of and understanding ourselves and others, a form of meaning-making just as important as are the sciences."

A sense of aesthetic appreciation is so innate in humans that we easily distinguish between and prefer abstract art created by a master (those paintings with, say, a few splotches of color that look like anybody could do it) over artificially generated copies or abstract works of art created by children and animals.

So, one big argument for pursuing your artistic capability is simply because it's a natural, human thing to do. The odds are good you going to make something creative at some point, so why not develop that ability further? This in and of itself doesn't serve as a particularly compelling reason, but there are plenty of benefits that producing art can bring.

The physical and mental benefits of making art

Photo credit: Anna Kolosyuk on Unsplash

Research has shown that producing art has a positive impact on human psychology. One study compared two groups that spent 10 weeks doing an art-related activity. The first group produced visual art in a class, while the second spent time cognitively evaluating artwork at a museum. After the 10-week intervention, the researchers compared the groups using an MRI.

They found that the art production group had significantly more connections in a critical part of the brain called the default mode network. The default mode network is associated with a variety of functions, such as reflecting on one's emotional state, empathy, and imagining the future. Not only was this important part of the brain strengthened by producing art, but the participants in the art-production group also became better able to cope with stress.

Other research has shown that producing visual art diminishes the experience of negative emotions and increases positive ones and reduces depression, stress, and anxiety. There appears to be a significant connection between producing visual art and physical health as well, especially since visual art production has been linked with reducing cortisol, the hormone associated with stress.

In older adults, participating in art classes improved their perception of their health and made them more active. They also visited their doctors more frequently and required less medication.

Can art be taught?

It's clear that producing art can improve cognitive function and physical health, but for those who don't believe they have artistic talent, these findings may just represent a missed opportunity. Some believe that art can't be taught. First, it's important to remember that the studies referenced previously randomly assigned people to produce artwork; none of those individuals were selected for any innate artistic talent, and so the benefits found by those studies can be acquired by anybody.

Many artists believe that while anybody can be taught art to some extent, artistic geniuses are born rather than made. "There is no question in my mind that artists are born," says Nancy Locke, a professor of art history at Penn State. But, she argues, its crucial to cultivate this innate talent.

Research backs this up to some extent. In the Big Five personality theory, the trait of "openness to experience" — or the trait that predicts whether an individual enjoys getting out of their comfort zone and seeking out unfamiliar experiences — has been shown to be associated with preferences for artistic activities. Psychologists believe that personality traits such as openness to experience are a combination of both genetics and the environment, so it's fair to say that artistic talent is indeed innate to some extent.

What does this mean for the aspiring artist? The scientific literature referenced above suggests that the many benefits of art production can be gained simply be practicing art regardless of talent. And, since even those with innate talents can't go very far in art without practice, it may be the case that you possess such talent but have never cultivated it.

The cognitive benefits of creating art aren't even contingent on skill. The next time you have to attend a lecture or study something, allow yourself to doodle in the margins: Studies have shown that you'll be 29 percent more likely to recall information and less likely to daydream.

Increasingly, the idea that producing art is some mysterious, unknowable process is diminishing. Instead, creating art is more akin to the visual analog of writing; everybody needs to write a little in the course of their day, not just great writers. Similarly, we should acknowledge that everybody needs to create a bit of art every day, either for greater recall, improved cognition, to reduce stress, or simply for the natural pleasure of creating something.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

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  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
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  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
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