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.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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