The arts ask the really big questions. Cognitive neuroscience asks big questions. Molecular neuroscience asks small questions.
Somewhere in our evolutionary history, the human need to make art has emerged. Around 50,000 years ago, our ancestors started to paint on the walls of caves. No other species had ever done this. And the paintings would not have been seen by very many people. So there is an urge to create this art that extends beyond the desire for others to see it. Musical instruments begin to emerge at about the same time, as did burying the dead with things - the emergence of abstraction.
Human genomes are almost identical to each other (only 1% different from one person to another). Neanderthals are also remarkably similar to us. But there are small differences, which may contribute to the human drive to create art. All of our closest relatives have gone extinct. Even the closest living ones (i.e. chimps, etc.) are threatened. Chimp genes are 97% like ours. But they wouldn't spontaneously help each other like we do. This is called the "social brain."
Reading: Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
Attributes of the Social Brain:
- Ability to recognize people's faces (there is a part of the brain devoted specifically to this function; test yourself at faceblind.org)
- Watching the eye movements of people you're talking to
- Language - (there is a musicality to the Italian language, and they use the "musical" parts of their brain to attempt to extract meaning from nonsense words)
- Memories - beyond declarative ("Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinion, their life a mimicry, their passion a quotation." Oscar Wilde; "Let us, then, say that this is the gift of Memory, the mother of the Muses, and that whenever we wish to remember anything we see or hear or think of in our own minds, we hold this wax under the perceptions and thoughts and imprint them upon it, just as we make impressions from seal rings; and whatever is imprinted we remember and know as long as its image lasts..." Socrates) The Greeks linked memory (Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory) and the arts (the Muses are her daughters)
Memory is not about the past. It is about the future. Memory is mental time travel. (Yadin Dudai quote on the role of memory)
We do not recall things perfectly. Rather, our memories help to inform our thoughts. When memory goes away, we lose our future. When you ask an Alzheimer's patient what they would like to do this summer, they have a difficult time providing detail about their desires.
Daydreaming vs. Task-oriented Behavior
The brain shifts when you are not trying to achieve a goal. It continues to use a lot of energy, but it activates the parietal lobes - the "dark energy" of the brain, when you are at rest, but active.
What does the brain do?
It tells us our own story - creates autobiography
1. Places us in the lead role of own story (agency, maps our position in space)
2. Creates a continuity of consciousness upon a fragmented field of memories
3. Deludes us about our past by conflating memory with imagination
4. Puts emotional valence on our experience so we can learn to survive
The brain tells our story. We have to explain what we don't understand. Confabulation is when we form false memories of events by confusing imagination and memories. But we also engage in storytelling through the arts - stories, painting, music, etc. As we chip away at a scientific understanding of things, we often don't get to the really big questions that the arts address.
In our day-to-day life stories, our brains respond profoundly to visual stimuli. But the mind can put a different kind of look to the same scene. The actual visual input is far more important than all of the meaning that we put on that information. This is true of all stimuli - it is the meaning we make that is most important.