In the beginning, there was creativity
Thanks to a series of brain mutations; about 70,000 years ago, homo sapiens gained the capacity for creative thought. Humans (and other primates, for that matter) had long commanded the capacity to communicate about literal matters, like ‘There is a falcon hunting mice in the meadow.’ Armed with this newfound ability to generate and share creative ideas, our ancestors began to also share creative ideas, like: ‘I believe that the falcon spirit protects our tribe.’ While a creative imagination doesn’t seem like a very impressive, evolutionary differentiator, it supercharged two of our most important biological adaptations as social primates: collaboration and innovation. Together, these two, subtle shifts changed everything.
Creativity and collaboration
For hundreds of thousands of years, humans had lived in conjoined, extended family groups of about 60 individuals, bonded to each other based on shared survival needs. Once capable of creative thought, we began to work together based on shared ideas, like: ‘The falcon spirit protects our tribe.’ While all other primate species remained confined to conjoined family groups of under 100, homo sapiens began to organize by the thousands. Bonded by shared ideas, no other human species could compete with homo sapien tribes of far, greater numbers. In short order, we drove all of our nearest cousins to extinction, while exploring, colonizing and dominating the globe (1).
Creativity and innovation
Collaboration at scale has many benefits, just ask a colony of ants. Add creativity to that collaboration and things really get interesting. In addition to scaling our ability to collaborate, creative thinking simultaneously empowered us to identify unique problems and tackle them with creative solutions. For example, without creative thinking, not being able to fly would never be a problem. Without creative innovation, two bicycle mechanics with a sketchpad and a healthy tolerance for dangerous experimentation never would have solved that problem.
For the past 70 millenia, we have been working together to combine our creative capacities in the pursuit, production and distribution of technologies that keep us warm, dry and safe, eradicate disease, take us to the far reaches of our planet (and beyond); and, keep us entertained. Today, we live in social structures where millions (and even billions) of people collaborate within the shared idea of a business, a country or a religion. These businesses, countries and religious organizations exchange goods, compete and collaborate via the global economy, a creative idea made possible by technologies that allow us to send virtual representations of the value that we’ve assigned to a good, a service, a brand, a plot of land, or anything else that we’ve decided can be bought or sold.
Creativity helps us grow
Because of its profound impact on our species and the planet, it is easy to forget that creativity is a biological adaptation. Like sonar to a bat, spines to a cactus or claws to a bear; creativity is core to our survival. Just like a little bear needs to practice climbing and swimming to build the skills necessary to succeed as an adult bear, children need to create, experiment and explore in order to become healthy, integrated adults.
Myriad studies support the assertion that practicing the creative arts is essential to human development and health. For example, engaging in art enhances our ability to achieve focus and flow, reduces anxiety and increases positive emotions, helps us solve problems more creatively, encourages self awareness; and, regulates our emotions (2). Because the arts helps us solve problems while keeping us calm and focused, it is no wonder that children who engage in art programs experience less anxiety and depression and do better in school (3).
Creativity keeps us healthy
While the arts are especially important to aid in the integration of the developing brain, creative expression is fundamental to adult health as well. For example, adults who have an art practice boast healthier immune systems (4); and, older adults who practice art enjoy a slower rate of cognitive decline than their non-creative counterparts (5). Just like your body needs exercise to stay fit, your brain needs the stimulating and integrating practice of creative expression to stay healthy.
Creativity can help us heal
Creative expression is not only a powerful way to maintain health, it also acts as a powerful healing tool for both physical and emotional illness. Art therapy is particularly effective in healing trauma (6). For cancer patients, art therapy can reduce pain, anxiety and depression during treatment and through recovery (7). For Parkinson’s sufferers, dance is one of the most effective ways to combat the physical decline and emotional distress associated with this devastating disease.
Creativity brings us together
In addition to its personal health benefits, sharing and practicing art strengthens interpersonal communication and facilitates social bonding (8). For example, when people sing, their brains release endorphins and oxytocin to promote social bonding, while the shared, musical vibrations cause their bodies to move in sync while their heartbeats synchronize (9). On a social scale, an international study reveals that participation in the arts strengthens and diversifies a person's social networks.
The arts are fundamental to a healthy society
For all of its benefits on personal and interpersonal health, it is not surprising that a recent, meta analysis of the impact of arts programs on community strength revealed that the arts make communities stronger, more prosperous, happier and healthier. From reducing crime to boosting school performance, to stimulating economic growth and facilitating social cohesion, trust and happiness; creative expression brings people together to collaborate in ways that help the community (10). Perhaps that is why human tribes have sung together and danced together for thousands of years to promote social cohesion and integration.
The arts are not a luxury
The data are clear: Creative expression is essential to personal health, interpersonal bonding and social health. In fact, social cohesion and strong interpersonal relationships are the two most important factors in human health and longevity (4, 5) Thus, as our communities continue to grow (and grow apart); we need the healing and bonding power of art more than ever. The arts are not a luxury, they are an essential component in the glue that brings us together to collaborate, innovate and grow as a community.
Bringing it home
San Francisco is a shining example of how creative collaboration can drive breathtaking technological innovation. Unfortunately, artists are leaving the city in droves due to affordability issues. The technology workers who can afford to live here have little time to meet, collaborate with and enjoy the artistic scene that remains in the city. This famine of creative expression is impacting our children as well, most of whom do not have adequate access to arts education in school. This is particularly distressing, considering how important creative expression is in fomenting growth and integration in the developing brain. As members of this community, it is up to us to find creative ways to bring the arts back to our community to heal ourselves, to connect with each other and to help our community thrive.
With a firm understanding of the personal, interpersonal and social benefits of art, Code and Canvas is working hard to: 1. Keep artists in the community, to restore the necessary balance between technology and art; 2. Deliver art to the community; with a focus on works that foster growth, healing and connection; and, 3. Provide healing arts services on site, including individual & family therapy, healing arts workshops and therapeutic arts events. Recognizing that Code and Canvas is itself a social system, we are simultaneously working hard to raise the funds necessary to provide these services to those who need them most, not just those who have the means to afford them. If you are as passionate as we are about healing our community through art and would like to get involved, don’t hesitate to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to support us in our efforts, a donation of any amount is greatly appreciated.
© Galyn Burke, 2018