Tagged: evolutionary psychology

Creativity and Proximate Causation

Combining aspects of the previous posts, what proximate mechanisms might be relevant to the notion of artistic fitness? Scott Barry Kauffman at www.creativitypost.com rounds up some of the most interesting recent research and thinking on this topic in his post, Must One Risk Madness to Achieve Genius?

Touching on work by luminaries like Susan Blackmore and others, Scott drives from personality assessment concepts down through the role of dopamine in trying to identify whether there is a spectrum of observable traits that are linked to creativity and artistic achievement.


Daniel Nettle and Helen Clegg found that apophenia was positively related to a higher number of sexual partners for both men and women, and this relationship was explained by artistic creative activity. Similarly, in a more recent study conducted by Helen Cleff, Daniel Nettle, and Dorothy Miell, they found that more successful male artists (who are presumably higher in apophenia) had more sexual partners than less successful male artists.

Apophenia means seeing patterns in the environment where none may be present, a central theme in my second novel, Signals and Noise.

We can hypothesize also, based on the distribution from schizophrenia through schizotypy, through to “normal,” that there must be a large complement of interacting genes involved in these traits. This is supported by the evidence of genetic predispositions for schizophrenia, for instance, but also by the frustrating lack of success in identifying the genes that are involved.  This distribution may, in fact, be one of the most critical aspects of what it means to be human:

Were it not for those “disordered” genes, you wouldn’t have extremely creative, successful people.  Being in the absolute middle of every trait spectrum, not too extreme in any one direction, makes you balanced, but rather boring.  The tails of the spectrum, or the fringe, is where all the exciting stuff happens.  Some of the exciting stuff goes uncontrolled and ends up being a psychological disorder, but some of those people with the traits that define Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, ADHD, and other psychological conditions, have the fortunate gift of high cognitive control paired with those traits, and end up being the creative geniuses that we admire, aspire to be like, and desperately need in this world.

Artistic Fitness

Following on Wirt’s 1991 treatise, On the Role of Males, that suggests that sexual caste is a meta-trait that operates at a level above simple, beanbag “selfish genetics” by supporting eliminating genetic defects through Y chromosomes (unmasked heterozygous alleles) combined with combative behavior, we can easily ask what other traits elevate female choices for mammals because, by being selective, female choice accelerates evolution even more. And, for humankind, we can ask the most interesting question: what drives women to desire men?

From Geoffrey Miller’s Aesthetic fitness: How sexual selection shaped artistic virtuosity as a fitness indicator and aesthetic preferences as mate choice criteria:

From 1871 until the turn of the 20th century, Darwinian aesthetics was an active area of theorizing.  Darwin (1871) himself viewed the human visual arts as an outgrowth of an instinct for body ornamentation.  He pointed out that males in most cultures indulge in much more self-adornment than females, as predicted by his sexual selection theory. (He understood that men of his own culture ornamented themselves with country estates and colonial treasures rather than tattoos and penis sheaths).  Herbert Spencer argued that sexual selection produced most of the beauty in nature and culture, while Max Nordau posited a neurophysiological link between reproductive urges and artistic creativity, which Sigmund Freud appropriated in this theory of art as sublimated sexuality.   Friedrich Nietzsche developed an especially intriguing and little-appreciated biological aesthetics in The Will to Power, in the section titled ‘The will to power as art’. Nietzsche (1883-1888/1968, p. 421) also accepted a sexual display function for the visual arts, writing “Artists, if they are any good, are (physically as well) strong, full of surplus energy, powerful animals, sensual; without a certain overheating of the sexual system a Raphael is unthinkable.”

Art becomes a fitness indicator and aesthetics becomes an epiphenomena of evolutionary psychology. Creativity is a selection criterion as the crying girls worshipping the Beatles or Justin Biber demonstrate.  In much the same way that the elaborateness of mockingbird songs signal fitness, the invested effort at artistic achievement transforms into a motivator of desire:

An art-work’s beauty reveals an artist’s virtuosity.  This is an old-fashioned view of aesthetics, but that does not make it wrong.  Throughout most of human history, the perceived beauty of an object has depended very much on its cost in terms of time, energy, skill, or resources.


Evolutionary Oneirology

I was recently contacted by a startup that is developing a dream-recording app. The startup wants to automatically extract semantic relationships and correlate the narratives that dreamers type into their phones. I assume that the goal is to help the user try to understand their dreams. But why should we assume that dreams are understandable? We now know that waking cognition is unreliable, that meta-cognitive strategies influence decision making, that base rate fallacies are the norm, that perceptions are shaped by apophenia, that framing and language choices dominate decision-making under ambiguity, and that moral judgments are driven by impulse and feeling rather than any rational calculus.

Yet there are some remarkable consistencies about dream content that have led to elaborate theorization down through the ages. Dreams, by being cryptic, want to be explained. But the content of dreams, when sorted out, leads us less to Kerkule’s Rings or to Freud and Jung, and more to asking why there is so much anxiety present in dreams? The Evolutionary Theory of Dreaming by Finnish researcher Revonsuo tries to explain the overrepresentation of threats and fear in dreams by suggesting that the brain is engaged in a process of reliving conflict events as a form of implicit learning. Evidence in support of this theory includes experimental observations that threatening dreams increase in frequency for children who experienced trauma in childhood combined with the cross-cultural persistence of threatening dream content (and likely cross-species as anyone who has watched a cat twitch in deep sleep suspects). To date, however, the question of whether these dream cycles result in learning or improved responses to future conflict remains unanswered.

I turned down consulting for the startup because of time constraints, but the topic of dream anxiety comes back to me every few years when I startle out of one of those recurring dreams where I have not studied for the final exam and am desperately pawing through a sheaf of empty paper trying to find my notes. I apparently still haven’t learned enough about deadlines, just like my ancient ancestors never learned enough about Sabertooth Tiger stalking patterns.