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, it 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.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

For most of history, humans got smarter. That's now reversing.

We were gaining three IQ points per decade for many, many years. Now, that's going backward. Could this explain some of our choices lately?

The Flynn effect appears to be in retrograde. (Credit: Shutterstock/Big Think)
popular

There's a new study out of Norway that indicates our—well, technically, their—IQs are shrinking, to the tune of about seven IQ points per generation.

Keep reading Show less

Lama Rod Owens – the price of the ticket to freedom

An ordained Lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, Lama Rod grew up a queer, black male within the black Christian church in the American south. Navigating all of these intersecting, evolving identities has led him to a life's work based on compassion for self and others.

Think Again Podcasts
  • "What I'm interested in is deep, systematic change. What I understand now is that real change doesn't happen until change on the inside begins to happen."
  • "Masculinity is not inherently toxic. Patriarchy is toxic. We have to let that energy go so we can stop forcing other people to do emotional labor for us."
Keep reading Show less