What is Art For? 3. The art of creating ourselves

Notes following a talk by Charles Whitehead at LFAS on Wednesday 20th November 2019

representational art naturalistic

From the age of 8, children’s representational art becomes increasingly naturalistic, though decorative features are still common.


Art Rembrandt Rijksmuseum

After puberty, children want to emulate adult art, but computer games are a more likely source than art galleries.

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“Art” – however you define it – is a social display. By “social display” I mean any behaviour that enables us to show and share experiences and thoughts (sensations, moods, emotions. perceptions, ideas, beliefs, etc). That includes not only language and facial expressions, but also childhood play and all the cultural arts. By this definition, even giving someone a hug is a social display – a demonstration of affection.

Scientists confess that they find it “difficult” (they mean “impossible”) to define precisely what makes us human. But my kids, at the age of four, knew what makes us human, because they laughed at cartoon movies where much of the humour depends on animals behaving like humans, and our implicit awareness that this is absurd. Children know that animals don’t talk, but what makes Bugs Bunny funnier is his Bronx-cum-Brooklyn accent and other human-like behaviour. He chomps carrots with the aplomb of a tycoon smoking a cigar, struts around showing off his street-wise savvy, and even dresses in drag without loosing his cool. He hatches ingenious plots to outwit Elmer Fudd. Biologists call this “tactical deception”, and search for evidence of it in animals. Only great apes seem to have this ability, which depends on awareness that individuals can have false beliefs, part of what they call “theory of mind” or “mindreading”.

Social morroring Disney Drawing
Did you see what I saw?

One clip that made my kids laugh (redrawn by my son Jon because Warner Brothers could not identify the original). Surprise is uniquely human. The last frame (a wordless “Did you see what I saw?”) is a simple example of social mirroring.

Cartoon animals express surprise, which also requires insight into mental states (their own as well as others’). Autistic humans, having limited insight into false expectations, fail to express or understand surprise, often mistaking the surprised face for an expression of fear.

From the above examples we can see that much of the humour in animal cartoons concerns uniquely human social displays, along with the self-awareness and insight into the minds of others which depend on such displays.

Social mirror theory holds that mirrors in the mind require mirrors in society. That is, social displays (or social mirrors) make subjective states objective and salient so that, as children, we begin to notice that we and others have such states. We become self-conscious (aware that we are aware) and other-conscious (aware that others are aware) at the same time. “Cogito ergo sum” should read “Cogitamus ergo sumus” or even “Sentimus ergo sumus” (“We feel therefore we are”).

Our unique abilities to share experience is what makes us human. Humans have a formidable armamentarium of social displays – we have three broad classes of social display, each of which comes in at least four modes (depending on how you count), making twelve or more categories in all, often with more than one kind in each category. The table shows some illustrative examples, including two kinds of visual art and their cultural applications (in red type). No other animal comes close – two or three types of display at the most.

So art is part of a system that makes us human.

                                    Communication           Play                                         Performance

Implicit                                    Affective gesture-         Embodied play (e.g.                Grooming

                                    calls (e.g. laughing,     contingent mirror play)                        Song-and-dance display

                                    crying)                                                                         Mark- & pattern-making

Mimetic   Projective     Iconic gesture-calls     Projective pretend play                       Representational

                                    (e.g. ‘drawing               (using toys to represent                        image-making

                                    pictures in the air’)       real things, persons, etc.)


               Introjective    Miming praxic             Role-play (using oneself                      Pantomime

                                    actions                         to represent animals,               Hypnotic trance

                                                                        persons, etc.)

Cultural        Implicit     Implicit signals                        Collecting behaviour               Musical arts

                                    (e.g. speech prosody,                                                   Architecture,

                                    some conventional                                                      decoration,

                                    gestures)                                                                      design, etc.

                                                                                                                        Wealth displays

                                                                                                                        (material, moral,

                                                                                                                        aesthetic, cultural;

                                                                                                                        spiritual; etc.)

                    Mimetic    Mimetic codes             Iconic gaming pieces              Ritual/ceremony

                                    (e.g. musical scores,                                                    Theatre

                                    pictographic writing,                                                    Fine art

                                    computer icons)

         Unprecedented   Cryptic codes (e.g.       Play scripts                              Myth

                                    language, writing,                                                        Literary arts



                                    Economico-moral        Games-with-rules                     Socio-economic

                                    codes                                                                           personae (role)

The complexity of the human mind and brain led scientists to expect that the human genome would have many more encoding genes than other animals – maybe 100,000 base pairs at least. So they got a surprise when human DNA was finally mapped. It turned out that we only had about 22,000 base pairs – little more than the genome of a mouse. It would seem that the differences between human and mouse minds and brains require very little in the way of genetic programming, and that the human mind and brain must be underdetermined by genes.

The genetic code carries the basic instructions for making babies. But genes can never do anything on their own – they need a provident environment to supply them with the building blocks and fuel (delivered through the placenta), and the chemical machinery in the mother’s egg to start the process off.

Then other factors start to play a role. Even in the womb, babies start to learn the sound of their native language. They hear their mother’s voice transmitted through her body, and turn their heads when they hear other vocal sounds – even coughs and sneezes. And they turn their heads more often to hear voices speaking their mother’s language than those speaking a foreign tongue.

After birth, babies get turned into adults by a process called “childhood”. The power of childhood has been uniquely expanded in humans.

First there is “secondary altriciality”. “Altricial” is the opposite of “precocial” or “precocious”. Many herbivores have precocial infants who can run with the herd soon after birth. Many others have altricial babies who have to be nursed or carried around until they are mature enough to fend for themselves. “Secondary altrciality” means more than that. Human babies are not only born with immature bodies, but also rapid brain growth continues after birth. So much so, that in humans 75% of brain growth occurs outside the womb.

Secondly, human childhood is extended by slowed bodily growth and delayed sexual maturity. After puberty, an adolescent growth spurt puts human bodies back on the growth curve they would have followed if they had no childhood.

Growth in humans and chimps

These two factors give our social displays unprecedented power to sculpt our minds and brains. Which means genes do not have the final say on the functional anatomy of our brains. The brain sculpts itself through two phases. In each phase neurones grow lots of connections to other neurones (branching or arborisation) and then many of these are pruned away. Connections that get used a lot get strengthened, and those which are rarely used are eliminated.

1.         The first phase begins before birth. The most rapid spurt of arborisation occurs between 18 months and 2 years, followed by a period of extensive pruning. The greatest change in brain structure occurs between the ages of 2 and 5 years.

2.         The second begins just before puberty, with the most intense branching and connecting around the age of 11 or 12 years. Subsequent pruning begins to tail off around the age of 15, but continues throughout life. Maturation of the frontal lobes in particular is not complete until the early 20s.

So human infancy and adolescence each has its own phase of intensive restructuring. I think these two phases have distinct functions: the first establishes human levels of social awareness (which are indeed established by the age of five), and the second is particularly necessary for enculturation and adaptation to adult life in a given culture (again, this fits in with developmental changes).

These changes are driven by the individual’s own behaviour. One of those behaviours is art. Even if children are not given any art materials they will spontaneously make marks on any surface, including their own bodies, whether with jam or faeces. Mark-making starts around nine months. In their third year they will also make pictures and patterns, drawing in the sand or earth if necessary, or mould figures out of clay. The following pictures illustrate the progression during childhood, taken from my own children:

London Fine Art Studios Drawing Children Art Coour Crayon

I don’t want to repeat the details here, but the take home message from this part of my talk is that there is a spiral co-development of social displays and self/other awareness. That is, the build up of displays in one mode scaffolds a higher mode of self/other-awareness, and this makes possible a higher mode of social displays. In the diagram below, the diagonal arrows represent the major watersheds in child development, which have no obvious parallel in non-human apes. The first transition around 9 months is the shift from primary to secondary intersubjectivity, the second around 24 months is the onset of the “terrible twos”, and the third is the emergence of explicit “theory of mind” – which means intersubjectivity at the level of epistemic mental states (such as knowing, believing, imagining, guessing, etc). The fourth is the more gradual adoption of “economic-moral personae” – the roles we are obliged to play in adult life. This developmental spiral is powerful evidence supporting social mirror theory – as opposed to other theories which are more popular with cognitive scientists, who don’t want to know about anything that doesn’t work like a computer.

London Fine Art Studios Art Graph Drawing

The spiral co-development of social displays and self/other-awareness

I think this developmental spiral takes the form it does because this is the only way of achieving human levels of self/other-awareness. If so then human evolution must have followed a similar spiral path. The archaeological record is not inconsistent with that idea (see Part 1).

If you want to know more you can download most of my publications from my website, www.socialmirrors.org. Go to the page “About Charles Whitehead” (near the bottom of the menu) and scroll down to “Selected publications”. I particularly recommend:

Whitehead, C. (2016). ‘Health, development, and the culture-ready brain’. In The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience (New York: Oxford University Press). Download DOCX

Whitehead, C. (2014). ‘Why humans and not apes: The social preconditions for the emergence of language’. In The Social Origins of Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Download PDF

To summarise: Art is a social display, and social displays (including two kinds of art) function through infancy and adolescence to sculpt the brain, to shape its functional architecture, to achieve human levels of self/other-awareness, and to mould the minds of enculturated human adults. I might add that visual art, in contrast to other kinds of performance, seems specifically apposite for the development of body image, and how this can be modified (in the eyes of others) through costume, self-adornment, and design.

In Part 1, I noted that two kinds of art can be seen developing in the archaeological record, and the same can be seen in child art. Mark-making develops into iconic representations (which are not necessarily aesthetic) and decorative patterns (which are necessarily aesthetic). Both features often occur in the same artwork (in “house” above, Phyllis folded the top corners of the paper to represent the roof and a door is shown on both sides of the paper, with windows and curtains on the inside view – but the rest is jubilant decoration. Notice also the fanciful hats in the last picture, which is a detail from a computer painting of a firework display).

Patterns occur throughout nature, which is why physicists can describe natural laws with “beautiful equations”. Mathematics is a system for describing patterns, and modern maths teaching begins by encouraging children to make and discuss patterns using peg boards, blocks, crayons, etc. Educators point out that all aesthetic arts feature patterns – music, dance, poetry, and visual art (even in iconic “fine art”, composition is carefully judged, and must depend on some kind of intuitive geometry). So pattern seems to be one generic aspect of aesthetics, explaining why mathematicians, scientists, and engineers – as well as artists of all kinds – find beauty in their work. Linguisticians find poetic structure even in the most mundane human conversation. As long ago as 450-420 BC, the classical Greek sculptor Polykleitos wrote an influential Kanon describing the mathematical proportions of male athletic beauty, based on symmetria (relations of the parts to each other and to the whole), isonomia (balance), and rhythmos (rhythm). He may have been the first to use contrapposto (the way the hips sway one way and the shoulders the other as the weight falls on one leg). Many artists have attempted a mathematical understanding of human beauty, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man being an example, and modern cosmetic surgeons claim to have mastered this, commonly invoking the Golden Section. Of course, canons of beauty vary from age to age and culture to culture, so many of these mathematical conjectures are probably wrong.

Beauty Art London Fine Art Studios


But regularity of pattern cannot be the whole story. Musicologists point out that the regular patterning of music enables us to predict what will come next, but really satisfying music has to include some surprises – things we do not expect but which, after the event, still make musical sense. So you need patterns which are not obviously regular, but have novel and interesting twists and turns, for full aesthetic satisfaction. Take a tree, for example. There is a roughly logarithmic progression in the thickness of trunk, limbs, branches, and twigs. But countless tiny (or major) influences, caused by the prevailing wind, the dappling of light and shade, and a myriad unknowable accidents, cause the branching and leafing pattern in a tree to deviate in multiple ways, which enhance the beauty of the tree.

There are mathematical relationships between the wavelengths of light in a sunset, but truly dramatic sunsets result from the fortuitous fall of light on nearby clouds. Clouds have characteristic shapes – which means we can always identify a cumulonimbus cloud from its shape, and yet no two clouds are ever the same, being endless variations on a theme. If you look at the patterns created spontaneously by children, they seldom have the regularities desired by the teachers of mathematics. In Phyllis’s “House”, there are certainly rhythmic and repetitive patterns, but also wild juxtapositions of geometric and colourful invention. They are not predictable, but at the very least are aesthetic explorations. Some children’s patterns are so irregular that it is difficult to understand why they are patterns at all, yet they are certainly impactful and aesthetic. I give a couple more examples below, by Aspen:

Maybe children just know more about aesthetics than the scientists and philosophers do.


Maybe children just know more about aesthetics than the scientists and philosophers do.

Le Petit Prince is a book by Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1943), based on an experience he had of meeting an imaginary child after being shot down in the desert during World War 2. It’s said that everyone should read this book twice – once when a child, and once when forty years old or so. Children recognise the magic, and older people discover just how profound the wisdom is. Here are a couple of quotes:

Here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye

Only children know what they are looking for.

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