Art, cognitive play, and focus

I make my coffee in the morning and 32,000 years ago.

I use a chemex. I got it for my birthday. What the chemex coffee-making process lacks in brevity, it makes up for in delicious, aromatic coffee free of the bitterness that you get from a French press that never gets clean enough, which is what I was using to make coffee before this.

Between grinding the grounds, boiling the water, rinsing the paper filter, and pouring the water–all parts of the elaborate chemex process–you’ve got a few minutes to kill. Lately, I’ve been watching The Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog on my iPad while I make my coffee. I start it when I start the coffee, and by the time it’s over I’ve spent just a few minutes in Chevaux Cave, home to artwork from 20-32,000 years ago.

The paintings in the cave include buffalo and deer and handprints from a man with a bent or broken pinky finger, a hauntingly specific detail about an artist that lived before words were invented.

There is a section of the cave filled with a painting of a horse that seems to be decreasing in age from left to right, a Benjamin Button Black Beauty (this horse is brown, but you get the point). One theory holds that the cave would have filled with water during certain seasons, and that torchlight glinting off of the floodwater would have reflected up onto the horse images, giving them a sense of movement and transformation, an incredible proto-cinema effect (which reminds me of Steven Millhauser’s short story “A Precursor of the Cinema“).

Thinking about what those artists might have been thinking of 32,000 as I begin my day with a cup of hot joe in my hand helps ground me a little. It helps me think of my own writing as part of that old, incredible, miraculous impulse of art-making, as something both much smaller and more valuable than I otherwise would have imagined. Paintings, pictures, and stories are all somewhat delicate things. They’re so fun that it’s easy to forget that.

So Happy Together

One of the refrains of the books that I’ve been reading for the Hey Storytellers project is that storytelling and art are ways to practice real-world problem-solving in relative safety. This goes both for art-making and art-consuming.

Both Lisa Cron in Wired for Story and Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal cite Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories (which is the text we’re dealing with here), but it’s worth noting how much of this part of Boyd’s argument becomes a load-bearing element of the other two books; in The Storytelling Animal, it’s the foundation of Gottschall’s “trouble” argument.

Boyd says it like this:

“First, [art] serves as a stimulus and training for a flexible mind, as play does for the body and physical behavior. The high concentrations of pattern that art delivers repeatedly engage and activate individual brains and over time alter their wiring to modify key human perceptual, cognitive, and expressive systems, especially in terms of sight, hearing, movement, and social cognition. All of art’s other functions lead from this. Second, art becomes a social and individual system for engendering creativity, for producing options not confined by the here and now or the immediate and given. All other functions lead up to this.”

Art can also function in a way that increases, or favors, cooperation. Think of a studio film production, or a collaborative Alternate Reality Game like the ones for Lost, The Dark Knight, or Halo. Think of a group of taiko drummers drumming or a Beastie Boys cover band. Think of the Beastie Boys themselves.

cc badjonni
cc badjonni


Our shared focus doesn’t just extend to making art, of course. There is also the kind of focus, shared attention, and cooperation that exists between the people in the audience of a Broadway musical, for instance, or the patrons of an art museum. Both observing and judging art practice these skills.

Beautiful, not brutal

Art also increases lets us practice pattern recognition, an ability which correlates strongly to human’s ability to survive in difficult terrain and negotiate delicate social relationships.

Boyd continues:

The more pleasure that creatures have in play in safe contexts, the more they will happily expend energy in mastering skills needed in urgent or volatile situations, in attack, defense, and social competition and cooperation. This explains why in the human case we particularly enjoy play that develops skills needed in flight (chase, tag, running) and fight (rough-and-tumble, throwing as a form of attack at a distance), in recovery of balance (skiing, surfing, skateboarding), and in individual and team games.

So, too, with the talents that art practices: pattern recognition, cooperation, and sustained focus.

In Chauvet Cave, where the wall paintings span thousands of years, the artists weren’t just cooperating with each other, they were collaborating with hundreds of generations of humans who had explored that same cave and cavern system, humans who had most likely followed the same animal trails through the yearly cycle of seasons.

The images there helped, maybe, show a different side of the lives they were living: beautiful and not brutal, playful not punishing.

Which is exactly the kind of epiphany I want to go along with my morning coffee.