A&O – NEEDS met by ART



Education, 1890, by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Tiffany Studios

biologically relevant 


AS a biologist, I believe that the receptive and expressive capacities for aesthetic experience are expressions of biological needs.  They have evolved in our species and developed in us as individuals; they are profoundly subject to environmental influences and manifest through layers of physiological processes that have as their most urgent priority, the meeting of biological needs.  

In that sense, we could also consider art as an epiphenomenon or collateral effect of meeting needs. 

WE must navigate amidst the constraints/biases of our congenital dispositions as they locate themselves along spectrum of morphological and neuroplastic possibilities.  In other words, art occurs where the past and future intersect.  As a biologist, I am comfortable giving a significant role to the unknowable future because the organism has elaborate processes in play at every level of organization–from cellular to cognitive–to anticipate the consequences of action and to adjust ongoing actions to accommodate them. [see ERROR DETECTION].  I try to remain mindful of the deep threads of continuity between the generations that underlie these developmental possibilities and where they intersect.

PALEOPSYCHOLOGY:   History tells us much about the future: the likely paths future coping mechanisms might take spontaneously or with cultural “guidance.”  The constraints of history and how traits that evolved in the past can help us cope with unexpected exigencies of the future: what drove past species to extinction? What enabled some species to thrive while others failed?

TRAITS are more-or-less ADAPTIVE to the extent that they help an organism cope with selection pressure.

How is art adaptive?  Early ethological thinking (Conrad Lorenz) regarded ART as “autotelic” –existing for its own sake alone, but in fact its adaptive value has been documented in diverse ways.  Theory has it that all traits–not least art–must be now be (or in the past have been)  adaptive: fitness-enhancing.  They “must” confer a service to either individual or group needs or be necessarily related to some other trait that confers such a service.  It must meet proximate or ultimate needs–and indeed it does.  It is a good bet that even traits that provide no apparent advantage may have had such an advantage in some ancestral “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA) .   In other words ART meets NEEDS, past, present, and/or future (anticipated).  

REVIEW NEED as first laid out by humanist psychology:

 NEEDS identified by Abraham Maslow to characterize relative urgency of motivational states in psychology are easily adapted to serve biology.   (Wikipedia)

  •  Physiological needs are keyed to the necessity to maintain homeostasis in support of matters of health and competence
  • Safety needs involve protection and relief from the distracting and physiological demanding exigencies of the environment and enabling attention to “higher” needs
  • Social belonging is essential, if only briefly, to enhance safety and enable reproduction in sexually reproducing organisms.
  • Esteem within a social group enhances ones availability as a reproductive partner or recipient of potentially important resources (time, energy).  It involves the expression of one’s unique traits that affect at attribute of value to a prospective reproductive partner such that they might say, “I want those genes in my babies.”
  • Self-actualization and Self-transcendence is the maximizing of one’s potential, “being all you can be” represented as  biological fitness, the expression of your traits in offspring (of your own [direct fitness] or of others with whom you share genetics [indirect fitness].) [see endnote]
Maslow’s NEED Hierarchy

Self-Actualization is arguably the supreme need, serving the perpetuation of the species with an emphasis of one’s own attributes.   Often it trumps other needs … self-sacrifice for family and kin … a dramatic example is found in matriphagy 


In some versions of the taxonomy, self actualization is, or leads to, TRANSCENDENCE. (interestingly, “going beyond” is often defined as a necessary dimension of art: going beyond the necessity of the moment, the basic meeting of a biological need.  BUT also, we might consider if the mere effort to “go beyond” is in itself an adaptive trait, signaling (for example) certain qualities of disposition or temperament, or even the possession of the necessary leisure)  


 NEEDS MET BY the EXPERIENCES of ART: creating, considering, communicating.   We fruitfully build on a list of the functions that art might serve that  might lead to its natural selection as a human trait compiled by Ellen Dissanayake (Read “What is Art For?”).

Other clues about needs met by art emerge when creative or experienced (expressive or receptive) art articulates with remedial therapeutics and medicine, sometimes made evident only the occurrence of rare syndromes (some aphasias) or the consequences of unfortunate physiological events (strokes, (more), epilepsy) or uncommon genetic dispositions (autism, schizophrenia)



  • Art is therapeutic: it integrates for us powerful contradictory and disturbing feelings (Stokes 1972; Fuller 1980, in D1988)
  • permits momentary escape (Nietzsche 1872 in D1988);
  • creates consoling illusions (Rank 1932 in D1988);
  • promotes catharsis (Aristotle’s Poetics2 in D1988);
  • Connecting of internal and external realities (D1988);
  • “Mastery of giving form to and integrating conflicting feelings” (D1988)
  • Creating ART activates brain circuits associated with pleasure (Kaimai et al 2017)


  • Art facilitates working with overlapping or multiple meanings, contributing thereby also to our toleration for ambiguity (But dreams and fantasy do as well as art although they may share some common properties with art (Kris 1953:258 in D1988:68))
  • Art is crucial to human cerebral evolution (Susanne Langer in D1988:67)
  • Art is a means of developing consciousness and skills (Herbert Read 1955, 1960 in D1988)
  • Art museums and concert halls should be called spiritual gymnasia (David Mandel 1967 in D1988).
  • Art contributes to skill in creating order in the world (Storr 1972, Humphrey 1980, Gombrich 1970 in D1988:69)
  • Art provides an otherwise unattainable zest for life: JZ Young said art has a central function “of insisting that life be worthwhile, which, after all, is the final guarantee of its continuance.” (1971:370 cited by D1988:70)
  • Art exercises and trains our abilities to perceive and discriminate shapes, distances . . (Dewey 1934:200 in D1988) (“The very process of drawing a picture of something (say, an animal) is already an act of separating it as an object from its immersion in the totality of experience” (D1988:69)
  • Art dishabituates the routine habitual way of seeing things, providing a sense of new possibilities when old solutions are no longer effective (Morse Peckham 1965 in D1988:70).(What I have called elsewhere deautomatization).


Integrating experience

  • Art “echoes or reflects the natural world of which we are a part” (in D1988:64);
  • Art builds on spatial or temporal “metaphor in our conceptualization of experience” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980 in D1988).
  • “Art, it is sometimes said, makes use of and enhances evolutionary advantageous cognitive abilities” (D1988:69)
  • Art externalizes constructs of otherwise inaccessible neural structures for scrutiny by structures capable of cognitive analysis.

Communicating experience

  • Communication (Alland 1977, Hirn 1900, in D1988:73)
  • Reinforce or represent social status; attract mates strengthen social bonds, arouse sympathy (Spencer 1857, Grosse 1897, Dewey 1934 in D1988:71)
  • Deepening consciousness of social continuity (Sotho; Damane and Sanders 1974 in D1988)
  • Aids social coherence (Hopi; Thompson 1945:546 in D1988)
  • Resolves dissonances in times of change (Bwiti; Fernandez 1966:66 in D1988)
  • Impact on social system of the processes and products of art (Firth 1951 in D1988:62)
  • Rhythmic chants or song to encourage or facilitate cooperative work, hunting, fighting
  • Singing to unify, coordinate social group under stress (WWII London Blitz shelter singing; Trobriand Islanders; chanting during a terrifying storm (Malinowski 1922:225 in D1988) Freud suggested the pleasure of musical rhythm was by association with sex (1924).
  • Architectural/sculptural “territorial markings” (see Rappaport 1975 in D1988)


  • Creative Artists have often found that the act of art can lead in unpredictable directions … their work seems to emerge from intuition or forces that feel outside of themselves, such that they are merely channels. READ ON
  • For all thea advantages of habit and bias in everyday behavior, we know ourselves better when we are  liberated from some of these accumulated through our development and experience: So one need might be to exorcise those biases that most hobble our creativity.  Picasso once told André Malraux, when he was being interviewed and speaking of the breakthroughs that led to his painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [made in Paris, June-July 1907].
    • “Matisse had shown him an African statue he’d bought. Then Picasso went to the dingy ethnographic museum in Paris, the ‘Trocadero’, with its collection of primitive artefacts. It smelled like a flea market, but it opened his eyes to the magic of masks and fetishes. If you give spirits a shape, you break free from them, he said. Suddenly… I grasped why I was a painter. All alone in that museum, surrounded by masks, Red Indian dolls, dummies covered with dust. The Demoiselles must have come that day.. ..because it was my first exorcising picture.”  (Quote by André Malraux, 1940’s, in ‘Matisse & Picasso’, Paul Trachtman (Feb 2003) in Smithsonian Magazine, p 4).  


  • By allowing “direct, ‘thoughtless’ (or unself-conscious) experience . . . .art then can temporarily restore the significance, value, and integrity sensuality and the emotional power of things, in contrast to the usual indifference of our habitual and abstracted routine of practical living (Burnshaw, 1970). (see deautomatizing function)
  • By short-circuiting the analytical faculties, “art connects us directly to the substantial immediacy of things--we feel the direct impact of color, texture, size, or the particularity and power of the subject matter” ( D1988:66-67).

WAYS to think about these NEEDS

  • Needs can be hierarchically arrayed according to their centrality to the “mission” of a successful organism: to be healthy, safe, socially acceptable, reproductively successful, fully actualized. In humans (the group for whom a “need hierarchy” was first conceptualized by Abraham Maslow), the first and last For Maslow, being fully actualized meant spiritually developed (he called it “self-actualization”) of these needs are intensely individual, while those intermediate needs are social.
  • But this is controversial:  Utilitarianism is implicit in the evolutionary treatment because if no advantage is realized from an act of art, it cannot be regarded as an adaptation that would be subject to evolutionary forces.  (point also made by James W. McAllister (Philosophy, Leiden) in his paper, “The Utilitarian Value of Human Aesthetic Judgement,”  at the 1993 Amsterdam meeting of the European Sociobiological Society section on “Sociobiology and the Arts,” (abstract, p. 17)
  • Intentionality is a common criterion for art.   Many aestheticians feel that to qualify as art, there must be evidence that a craftsman has intentionally gone “beyond what was strictly necessary for utility. . . ” (Sandars 1985:34 in Prehistoric art in Europe, 2nd ed. Penguin, London.) (but see “SELF-KNOWLEDGE,” above.

About the need for intention for example, Kathryn Coe (1992)[i] … feels that art must be defined in an explicit, empirical way and purged of appeals to affect, technique, or symbolism is essential to cross-cultural analyses.  She ventures and defends a definition: “Color and or form used by humans in order to modify an object, body, or message solely to attract attention to that object, body, or message.”  

This recalls Ellen Dissanayake’s view that “ART” means “making special” by going beyond the immediate needs of the moment  (implying the availability of both safety and leisure) (see above).  It utilizes the artist’s (or artisan’s) explicit or implicit (intuitive) understanding of the actions that call selective attention to an act or object … in her’s terms, it “makes special” the act or artifact to themselves or (more particularly) to another person.  

Coe asserted that “The proximate or immediate effect of art is to [deliberately] make objects more noticeable” (1992:219) … and then try to use that idea to identify an evolutionary origin for the phenomenon.  For example, she regards modification of the appearance of the human body, first seen during the transition between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods, as the first solid evidence for art. Intentional modification of the human body (by 70,000 BP there was evidence … of intentional head binding; by upper Paleolithic there is evidence of intentional teeth filing in Minatogawa man from Okinawa (c. 18,000 BP); and by late upper Paleolithic, cranial and dental modification seemed more common and elaborate…  )

Coe’s definition requires intentionality. Speaking of the appearance of  an Acheulean handaxe of  Homo erectus  (200,000 BP), if the craftsman did not go beyond pure functionality it was not art: “Aesthetic ‘attractiveness’ thus may be an unintentional consequence of use, and hence not art” (p. 223).

WE can accept that art process or product (“artifact”) is no longer “autotelic” –that whether observing, integrating, or creating art, it has functions that serve the implicit or explicit needs of artists and/or their audience.

ART may be created as an unintended by-product of other acts if it is perceived by others as artistic in the sense that it goes beyond normal boundaries of expectation and calls selective attention to itself.   Creators of art may be acting as recreation or obsessive, they may have casual indifference (“She walks in beauty”–Byron) or be acutely aware of urgency (“The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” attrib to Anaïs Nin;  “If you bring forth that which is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth that which is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.+–Gospel of Thomas #70) .

Notes: Mind and the social contract.  After incoming sensations generate a characteristic transient pattern of cortical activity it may reappear in contexts of other knowledge and seems to represent the meaning of a particular sensation.  What we learn of the world is attributable to constant updates achieved this way.  Changing your mind.  “Mammalian brains contain a mechanism that can loosen the grip of previously acquired perspectives on the world and lay the groundwork for securing crucial new knowledge” (Walter J. Freeman (Berkeley) in Societies of Brains 1995, Earlbaum, reported by Bruce Bower 1996, “Bridging the Brain Gap”  in SN,  2 Nov 1996 pp. 280-281)

Existential connection: Bruce Bowers believes Freeman would endorse Sartre’s argument that “each of us constructs self through his or her own actions and that we know that self as it is revealed in our actions” (P.280).  (Recalling St. Thomas who believed that to attain our goals we must accommodate ourselves to the world) The psychologist James Gibson had a similar view that it is through our actions that we perceive meaning in the stimuli that surround us.   Freeman believes that brains are isolated self-organizing systems that are closed to meaning.

But sociality requires that the gap between isolated islands of mind  should be closed and Freeman believes that is what happens when the island minds have a reorganizing experience such as that experienced by voles when chemicals are released as part of the mating / birthing / child-rearing experience that stimulate parental behavior.  “Substances such as these may wipe away connections formed among neurons by experiences early in life and usher in a temporary period of cerebral malleability.   In humans, the  “meltdown of long-standing neuronal connections and their attendant attitudes and beliefs is frequently experienced as a frightening loss of identity and self control.. . ”   Witness, Pavlov and subsequent findings about  “brainwashing,” and the induction of brain states that are conducive to incorporating collective values.


SELF ACTUALIZATION:  A recent article in The Journal of Humanistic Psychology (Compton 2023) reviewed “… progress made in psychology toward defining the parameters of what Maslow called the “Good Person.” The article concludes that considerable empirical support has been found for the character traits Maslow associated with self-actualization. That is, the fundamental description of the “Good Person” has not changed significantly since Maslow’s original work with two exceptions. One, there is now considerable research on self-transcendence and transpersonal states. Two, cross-cultural research has shown that Maslow’s description of self-actualizing people was more dependent on social, historical, and cultural norms that he was aware of. These lines of research significantly expand Maslow’s thinking about the parameters of the “Good Person.”  (Compton, W. C. (2023). Maslow and the Good Person. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/00221678221146212 )



“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are,” Pablo Neruda observed in his soulful Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But paths are more than metaphors — they do lead places and, along the way, do reveal us to ourselves in ways inconceivable at the outset, unattainable at home.”   (https://www.themarginalian.org/)



ART–in its expression or its reception meets many biologically relevant NEEDS; arguably, the greatest need is KNOW ONE’S SELF.  There are adaptive advantages in striving for this goal as well as attaining it (in fact attaining perfect self-knowledge may not be possible –Another expression of the journey being more important than the destination) [more about the importance of being in motion]

[i] 1992. Art: The replicable unit — An inquiry into the possible origin of art as a social behavior. J. Social and Evolutionary Systems 15(2):217-234.