As I write this, football is preparing for its bowl and playoff extravaganzas, basketball is under way, films with Oscar aspirations are opening, and ballet companies are seeking solvency via The Nutcracker. It’s a time when craft fairs abound, choirs carol, galleries display, theaters thrive, and Santa’s incredible delivery schedule once again eclipses his postal competition.
Although many folks think of these and related cultural phenomena as separate forms of pleasure, they’re really all part of a single central celebratory element of human life, the range and aesthetics of movement.
Plants and animals differ in several ways, but a key difference is that animals can move of their own volition and plants can’t. Volitional movement requires a brain that can determine whether it’s better to be here or there, and a motor system that can get one to there if that’s the better option. Humans have a three part motor system: (1) the toe/foot/leg system that encompasses about half our body length and moves us from here to there, (2) the finger/hand/arm system that extends our reach about two feet beyond our body and allows us to throw, grasp, carry, and write, and (3) the flexible neck/face/mouth system that extends our sensory range, initiates digestion, and uses sound and facial expression to communicate to others.
I can thus physically move my body and touch someone, but I can also remain where I am and move my facial muscles to project sound waves that touch others, and move my fingers to communicate typed thoughts. Much of human life is about moving physically, communicatively, and psychologically (e.g., from childhood to adolescence, from optimism to pessimism). To be completely motionless is to be completely dead.
Play and Games
Our mastery of movement begins in infancy and develops throughout life. My August 2002 BrainConnection column Mirror Neurons described the amazing mirror neuron system that plays a key role in priming an infant’s mimicked movements—but play and games are the principal driving force in our mastery of movement.
Play involves informal individual or small-group explorations with a minimal focus on a clearly defined goal. Games are more organized, and typically compare specific skills exhibited by goal-directed competing individuals or teams.
Movement games reach their pinnacle every two years when the whole world gathers to see who can move the best. Some Olympic events involve speed and distance competitions, but others (such as figure skating and gymnastics) focus more on the aesthetics of the movements.
Aesthetics emerge quickly in our childhood playful exploration of movement. For example, a child is initially content to simply move on a skateboard, but the seemingly innate need to also do it with style and grace emerges quickly after basic mastery. Skateboarding soon becomes dancing on wheels. Similarly, piano scales meld into marvelous melodies; basic drawing skills draw out perceptual aesthetics; mud pies become ceramics. We humans don’t just move to move—and we handsomely reward those whose virtuoso movements soar our spirits.
Folks don’t pay steep admission prices to watch pro basketball players merely pass the ball and throw it through a hoop. How the players pass and shoot baskets is what draws spectators—and pro players have been honing their basketball aesthetics for most of their life.
Are sports such as basketball only a game—or are they also a collaborative art form? I would argue that sports (especially at the virtuoso level) are basically a variant form of ballet. Ballet and team sports both incorporate choreographed and improvisational movements to tell a story that’s often about overcoming obstacles to achieve a prize.
The reverse is that the measurable and competitive edge so present in sports also frequently emerges in the arts—getting one’s compositions or dramas performed, filling the auditorium, getting positive performance reviews, selling a painting, winning an award.
Young folks joyfully spend much time and energy on play and games that challenge them to master intriguing skills, and they frequently aren’t even consciously aware of the developmental needs implicit in the activity. For example, children’s universal fascination with scary stories and games is probably related to their innate need to develop the brain systems that can properly process the important emotion of fear, and to develop such systems in non-threatening settings.
Our primary emotions are fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness, and joy, and we can add secondary and blended emotions to that list (such as anticipation, tension, and pride). All involve the emotionally important cognitive arousal systems that must be developed and maintained for our brain to recognize dangers and opportunities. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.
Normal life may not sufficiently activate some of these emotions. However, play and games frequently and artificially activate fear (and its handmaiden, attention), and this may partly explain our culture’s strong and enduring interest in play and games. Note how all the other emotions (and attention) are also central to play and games—and to the arts.
The arts play related integrative roles in the development and maintenance of many of our brain’s processing systems. Arts experiences that interest us tend to relate to important personal concerns. They thus allow us to explore the topics in a non-threatening playful manner during periods when we’re not actually confronted by the problem in its real form, and so they help us to develop and maintain the emotion, attention, and problem-solving systems that normally process the challenge.
In his recent thoughtprovoking book, The Arts and the Creation of Mind, Elliot Eisner persuasively argues that the arts teach us skills that are central to a qualitative human life: the ability to (1) relate parts to wholes, (2) improvise when things don’t go according to plan, (3) effectively use and shape various materials as a medium of expression, (4) enhance imaginative thought, (5) enhance the aesthetic quality of the experience, and (6) transform the aesthetic experience into language. One could argue that appropriately managed sports experiences can similarly develop such skills.
Our society and its schools tend to separate the arts and sports (and arts and sports devotees tend to have a contentious relationship to boot). Although differences certainly exist, it’s perhaps more useful to think of the arts and sports as the two different sides of a single coin with a combined cultural value that exceeds the value of the separate sides.
The challenge for our society and its schools is to determine the integrative value of the arts and sports, and to provide appropriate curricular support for both of these positive properties of the human condition. And as enjoyable as dancing cheerleaders and marching bands are at football games, the conceptual integration of sports and the arts should be defined at a more fundamental level.
Let’s get moving on that integrative task!