I recently watched a video on Visual Art and Color from The Science of the Arts conference, hosted by the Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins.

The panel of speakers, Jeremy Nathans (Biologist, Johns Hopkins?), Margaret Livingstone (Neuroscientist, Harvard), and William Stoehr (Boulder Artist), had many compelling ideas to share, with good scientific background: Color provides information about identity; The yellow from the light wavelength spectrum is not physically the same yellow that comes from combining the red and green wavelengths; We visually process images (and in particular, faces) by how they differ from the average; and more.

At the very end of the panel discussion, a provocative question was raised in the audience: If color is helpful for survival, what is the survival advantage of art? Jeremy Nathans proposed that art is something of an epi-phenomenon – because our brains are so powerful and built to manage so much complexity, art probably arose as a “side effect”, but it’s not essential. However, Margaret Livingstone commented that art comes out of communication, which is a fairly low-level survival skill, implying that there is a possibility that art is a necessary survival skill in some way.

And my thought is, besides storytelling, communication, and other historical reasons, there is something in the undercurrent of art that is necessary for our brain function. The ability to innovate, build, and even survive seems highly dependent on the process of switching back and forth from verbal to non-verbal (see recent post), and there is no way we could have evolved into the society that we are now without that creative process and expression. Perhaps there is a difference between art that is necessary for the individual’s survival vs. art necessary for society’s survival?