The trancing brain

New research suggests that art, music, and dance, which we perceive as unique to human beings are a natural adaptation wrought on the human brain by evolution that provides a sub-conscious way for the old brain, the paleoencephalon to coordinate the conflicting signals from the new brain, the neocortex. Art may well be as hard-wired an impulse as the drive to eat and drink and our sex drives, according to research published in the International Journal of Arts and Technology.

Judson Wright of “Pump Origin” in New York, USA, an experienced creative in using behavioural art and computer programming to study cognition, points out that the prefrontal cortex of our brains evolved in our ancestors through some adaptational pressure unknown. Given that many of our essential bodily functions and drives operate at an entirely sub-conscious level, the existence of a part of the brain that we feel is conscious and in control would seem, taken in isolation, to be detriment to our evolutionary fitness if it were somehow to be able to override such drives.

Art in its broadest sense and the trance states that its creation and experience can sometimes evoke suggest to Wright that the seemingly spontaneous urge to make and enjoy art is an evolutionary adaptation for Homo sapiens. The behaviour of all other living things seems to be “instinctive” and commonly a survival and reproductive response to external stimuli and pressures. See a predator, run away. See something tasty, eat it. Find a mate, make babies. But, it seems, no other organisms sees materials and thinks to fashion them into great artistic artefacts purely for the pleasure. Even the bower bird with its elaborate courtship platform, its bower, is creating its installation instinctively just as a peacock fans its tail.

Mammals and birds and probably others do have a neocortex or acomparable neuroanatomy with a different name but these are not developed to the extent that they are in humans. Wright’s hypothesis is that the connection between the old brain and the new brain is mediated by the artistic impulse and that it is manifest in a hypnotic, trance, state between the sub-conscious and the conscious. In this medium between the brain’s two parallel managerial styles we as living beings can mediate our activities and behaviour and enjoy the experiences of our senses and our movements in ways that other animals do not.

Wright, J. (2017) ‘Trancing: applying evolution’s cognitive adaptation via web art/music’, Int. J. Arts and Technology, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp.43–57.

The research has also led to a book: Behavioral Art: Introducing Ontogeny into Computation

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.