University of São Paulo: Desire to paint, dance and sing is an evolved part of the human mind, study finds

From cave paintings to Broadway shows, artistic work accompanies humanity. But why do we share the desire to paint, dance and sing? In order to explore the psychological structure of human artistic motivation, researcher Marco Antonio Correa Varella , from the Institute of Psychology (IP) at USP, tested the hypothesis that human engagement with the arts is a result of the evolution of the species. For this, it analyzed responses from college students to enter artistic courses. Research has shown that artistic motivations have aspects such as specificity, self-reinforcement and stability — indicative of an evolutionary characteristic of our species — that is, we are naturally and evolutionarily artistic animals. “The study will help make us take artistic activities seriously, as an integral part of human nature”, says the researcher.


Marco Correa Varella – Photo: Cecília Bastos/USP Images
The article with the details of the study was published in Frontiers in Psychology , on December 21, 2021, with funding from the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes) through a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Experimental Psychology at IP from USP.

The material is part of a special 2021 issue that celebrates the 150th anniversary of the book published in 1871 The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, by Charles Darwin (1809-1882), in which the English naturalist — a of scientists to gather evidence of the evolutionary roots of human musicality — underscores the universality of the mind, referring to the pleasures that various populations experience in dancing, engaging in music, acting, painting, tattooing, and self-decorating.

The motivation to use artistic skills — those focused on skills in the production and appreciation of the arts — has been the subject of studies for many decades. Contrary to Darwin’s evolutionary ideas, psychologist Steven Pinker , a researcher at Harvard University, United States, says that this is a recent characteristic, generated by the search for status and social prestige. Varella explains that, from this non-evolutionary point of view, the motivation for the arts would be extrinsic, that is, when an activity is carried out to obtain external reinforcements, such as working to earn a salary and having fun shopping. For this motivation to be evolved, among other characteristics such as universality and antiquity, it must be intrinsic ( self-reinforcement), what is done for the pleasure of doing it, in addition to being specific and relatively stable throughout the human trajectory.

To analyze the motivations, Marco Varella researched the socioeconomic questionnaire of the entrance exam of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), carried out by the Permanent Commission for Unicamp Entrance Exams.(Comvest), which asks college students why they chose the Arts course (music, dance, performing arts, visual arts and literary studies). The article contains two studies: one with 403,832 people (48.8% women) and the second with 1,703,916 participants (51% women), from 1987 to 2020, a wide range to assess the temporal stability of the trend. “The questions had more intrinsic alternatives such as ‘personal taste’, ‘personal aptitude’, ‘personal satisfaction’, and more extrinsic alternatives such as ‘media, teacher, family influence’, ‘salary’, ‘social contribution’ and ‘social prestige’. I added an intrinsic motivation factor and an extrinsic motivation factor to the corresponding set of responses”, says the researcher.

The data (from up to 35 cities in up to six different states in Brazil) were compared with some non-human courses, such as Dentistry, and with non-artistic humanities courses, such as Pedagogy, to find out if there is a general motivational pattern for all courses or if there is artistic specificity.

According to the researcher, in general across all courses, those enrolled reported two to six times more intrinsic than extrinsic factors; on the other hand, in the set of artistic courses, college students reported 10 to 28 times more intrinsic factors than extrinsic ones, which suggests a more intrinsic and specific profile of those taking Arts. The intrinsic factors remained constant over the years in both studies for all groups, but in the group of artistic courses they were even more constant.

“The results of the two studies converged, did not support Pinker’s hypothesis and supported the evolutionary hypothesis, that there is an evolved motivational system that is intrinsic, specific and temporally stable, aimed at encouraging us to use our artistic abilities to engage in aesthetically oriented activities”, he adds.


Photo: Freepik
To say that we are naturally and evolutionarily artistic animals means, for the researcher, to say that, as with language or play, it is quite possible that we have an evolved propensity to develop, throughout our early childhood, a motivational system that leads us to like art for its own sake, to be interested in it and to want to repeat activities — as well as to develop specific skills that allow us to perceive, learn, follow, engage, produce, imitate and create aesthetically crafted activities and products. “We would be naturally equipped to easily and intuitively process artistic information.”

But that doesn’t mean we were born great artists. According to Marco, more modern activities such as riding a bicycle, driving a car, reading, typing on a computer or solving quadratic equations are much more difficult to learn than more ancient activities such as walking, singing, talking and playing, but all are, to some degree, learned. “This precocious facility to deal with these more ancestral activities indicates a preexisting cognitive preparation to learn and to enjoy improving oneself in such activities”, he says.

What are the evolutionary advantages of the universal artistic bent?

According to the researcher, the scientific literature indicates that artisticity could have improved the development of cognition in general, motor coordination and creativity, through games or simulation of possible situations – which can be an advantage, in terms of survival. . The use of symbols and ornamentation in messages can also be adaptive, promoting cooperation and social cohesion, through group rituals, which is also an advantage for survival. In addition, artistic activities may have increased mating opportunities and desirability of individuals, a way of maintaining and competing for partners, with a direct positive effect on the reproduction of the species. This last line of research focusing on sexual selection was started by Darwin 151 years ago.

“The contribution of this study is also aligned with the universality of artistic activity, with the Paleolithic antiquity of cave paintings and engravings, with the precocity of interest in artistic engagement in children, with the heritability of individual variation in artistic abilities, with the adaptive convergence of aesthetically oriented behaviors in other species, among other sources of evidence, pointing to the evolved status of our artisticity,” says the study’s author.

The author emphasizes that he does not suggest that the artistic tendency is fixed, immutable, genetically determined, purely instinctive or that there is no space for learning, extrinsic factors or culture. He is proposing that the ease of artistic learning, the genuine taste and interest in aesthetically oriented pursuits, and the resourcefulness and cultural fluency we display for the varied artistic modalities indicate – along with their universality, antiquity, precocity, heritability and adaptive convergence – the existence of an evolved psychological machinery, a specific and ancestral cognition geared towards the artistic domain.

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