For Changizi, we don’t have instincts for art and other ‘stimulus artefacts’ like music, language and design. These are inventions of civilisation; but crucially, they persist in (and possibly define) our species because they have been shaped to fit the preferences of our ancient brains. This is ‘nature harnessing’: the process wherein aspects of our culture mimic nature ‘so as to harness evolutionarily ancient brain mechanisms for a new purpose’. Speech, for instance, mimics the sound structures of the environment in which we evolved; alphabet letters, at the deep, unconscious processing level of our brains, resemble the contour combinations characteristic of our natural habitat. Music, arguably the pinnacle of artistic expression, is structured according to the sounds of people moving; we respond with emotion, and movement of our own.
Indeed, says Changizi, the highly evocative aspects of our culture most likely can be traced to the most powerful natural source of all our woe and joy, that which on our prosperity depends: other humans. Herein lies his hypothesis for art: that it exists not because we have an instinct for it, but because it responds to—harnesses—our instinct to engage with other people.
Mark Changizi is an American evolutionary neurobiologist and cognitive scientist, and author of The Vision Revolution (2009) and Harnessed (2011).