Ellen Franzen Dissanayake came to Washington State College from Walla Walla in 1953 as a music major. At the time, undergraduates were required to take four science classes. After taking the legendary BioSci 101 from Winfield Hatch and Human Physiology from Donald S. Farner, she found it easy to “think biologically,” which influenced her subsequent interest in the evolutionary origins of the arts.

At graduation, she married fellow student and zoologist John Eisenberg, and they moved to Berkeley, where he would attend graduate school. He was well on his way to becoming a prominent mammalian ethologist and was a rich source of thinking on behavior and natural selection.

Later, she married S.B. Dissanayake, a Sri Lankan professor of dentistry with an interest in public health. Her life in Sri Lanka seems idyllic, an invigorating combination of the tropics, the arts, and intellectual stimulation.

Throughout all this, her ideas about a biological basis for the arts had continued to develop. Through contact with anthropologists Desmond Morris and Lionel Tiger, she won a six-month fellowship from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and spent six months doing research in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. When she returned to Sri Lanka, she wrote What Is Art For? (Univ. of Washington Press 1988).

Dissanayake continued to develop her ideas in Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (Free Press 1992) and Art and Intimacy (Univ. of Washington Press 2000).

Dissanayake believes that the arts are an evolutionary behavioral adaptation that began with the intimate interaction between mother and infant and became the basis for social ritual, bonding, and cohesion. Far from being the fortunate side effect of other evolutionary developments or evolutionary “cheesecake,” as some evolutionary psychologists believe, art was, and is, essential to human survival.

Lingua Franca ran an excellent overview article of Dissanayake’s work. Click here to read it. Also, see Dissanayake’s website.

Tim Steury, editor of Washington State Magazine, interviewed Dissanayake at her home in Seattle. The portion of the interview that follows touches on her latest thinking about mother-infant interaction as a precursor to art. Watch for a feature about her work in the print version of Washington State Magazine coming later.


WSM: What effect have recent advances in neuroscience had on your work?

ED: Well everyone with an interest in human behavior has to be aware of neuroscience now, because there’s so much interesting research coming out. It’s obvious that our brain is behind everything we do. When you talk or even move a finger, that’s your brain signaling it to do so. It’s also responsible, or has its part, in what we think and why we do things-motivation, emotions. In my wish to understand why art exists, why people do it, I have to take neuroscience into consideration.

Of course neuroscience is a difficult subject-not easy for a humanist to master. I do the best I can.

I don’t know how much you know about my recent theories on baby talk and mother-infant interaction.


WSM: Art and Intimacy is the one book I have not read.

ED: Please bear with me, because I have to describe several pieces  of the puzzle that all need to be in place in order to support my idea  that the precursors to the sorts of abilities and sensitivities that became art originated in mother-infant interactions.

Two million years ago on the African savannah, there were two conflicting evolutionary trends in ancestral humans. First, our species was bipedal-we walked on two legs. That necessitated a number of physiological and anatomical changes-in back and neck, in legs and feet and hips, and in the shape of the pelvis.  At the same time, brain size and of course the skull were enlarging. So at the time of childbirth, this presented a problem, sometimes called “the obstetric dilemma,” with narrower pelvises and bigger babies’ heads.

Other adaptations were required so that childbirth would not be impossible. The baby’s skull became somewhat compressible-you know, the “soft spot.” And a lot of brain growth takes place outside the mother’s body. Between birth and age four, the brain triples in size. The female pelvis is able to separate slightly at birth. And importantly, the gestation period has shrunk. It has been projected that if human babies were as mature at birth as baby chimps, humans would have an18-month gestation period and babies would weigh 25 pounds at birth.

The result, over hundreds of thousands of generations, is a very helpless baby that needs a lot of care for a long time. All primates are good mothers, and human mothers would also have been “programmed” to take care of their babies. But for several years? Especially for this completely helpless and demanding infant that can’t cling and needs constant attention.

So I have suggested that mother-infant interaction-the universal behavior that we call “baby talk” and perform without even realizing it-became a behavioral adaptation that emotionally bonded human mothers and infants.

When adults talk to babies, we look into their eyes, which is a very unusual thing.  Animals usually don’t look into each other’s eyes, unless they’re aggressive, or in humans if they’re very intimate, during lovemaking. That’s the only time. Or with little babies.

We make these strange faces, you open your eyes really wide and smile or open your mouth and nod. Or you bob your head quickly back. You lean your body forward. You pat and hold, touch and kiss. In a soft, undulant, high-pitched voice you say, “Hiiiii!”, “Ooh, look at you! Are you hungry? Are you?”

All of these actions are drawn from what are called affinitive, or affiliative, behavior. Open mouth, smiles, widened eyes, an eyebrow flash-they’re all expressions that we naturally use with each other, without even thinking about it, that indicate that we’re we’re friendly or well-disposed to someone. In a classroom, when somebody you know enters the room you’ll briefly raise your eyebrows, to acknowledge you’ve seen them, or bob your head back like that. You nod when you’re in synch with somebody, talking to them. In sympathy, we pat, touch, we make out voice soft and undulant. You don’t talk in a deep voice or with long explanatory sentences to a baby.

So I have suggested that baby talk is a “ritualized behavior” that evolved in order to reinforce mothers’ love for their babies. Neuroscientific studies show that when we laugh or even make happy expressions, we feel good. Or if we frown and think bad thoughts, we feel depressed. My reasoning is that an ancestral mother who interacted with her baby using exaggerations of affiliative signals reinforced the neural circuits for affiliation in her own brain.  Actually, it’s a two-way adaptation: Babies who made their mothers act in that sort of way, who elicited these bahaviors, were better taken care of, and mothers who acted in that sort of way felt more like taking care of their babies. Of course this behavior evolved and refined itself over many, many generations.

The raw material was there, in the affinitive signals. It gradually became an evolved human behavior. It’s been shown in many societies that mothers and adults talk to infants in a higher pitched voice, and Iin my books are photographs of women, and men, all over the world, with these odd but universal facial expressions.  You can also see the interaction going on in the waiting areas of any airport in the world. The interaction varies slightly. Not all societies are as demonstrative as in America and the Caribbean or India. Some societies make more use of rhythmic movement than vocalization.

Another neuroscientific finding is that in this interaction, the mother and baby are coordinating themselves temporally. Even an eight-week-old baby expects its mother to respond to its signals. There have been experiments in which the mother and baby interact in two separate rooms via closed-circuit TV. She can’t touch the baby, but her voice and facial expressions and body movement are all the same.

There are two cameras with sound. One is stopped and after a few seconds restarted, so that it replays what has been happening, although now the baby and mother are a few seconds out of synch. Although her face and actions look just the same to us, the mother is not really responding in real time to what the baby is subtly doing, and so it starts to fuss or look perturbed. Finally, it will look away and start fingering it clothes and otherwise show distress. I have pictures of these expressions in Art and Intimacy. If the experiment is done the other way around, the mother will say, “I just don’t know what’s wrong with him today, he just doesn’t seem to like me very well.

To answer your original question about the relevance of neuroscientific findings in my work, then, mother-infant interaction relies directly on what occurs in the brain-the temporal coordination and affiliative signals fundamentally are motivated and reinforced in the mother’s brain and in the baby’s brain, and they result in their emotion and behavior. Another interesting thing is that neuroscientists say that it is in the orbitofrontal cortexthat babies process the visual, vocal, and movemen signals of their mothers all at once.

Now back to the arts, no one of course knows when they originated, but if we look at premodern societies of today, we see that the arts are preponderantly in ritual ceremonies, where they are also visual, vocal, and kinesic. I mean that  in these ceremonies, people do not sing without dancing or dance without singing.  They are usually beautifully or strikingly dressed, wearing masks and costumes. As in mother-infant interaction, he experience is simultaneously visual, vocal, kinesic.  The arts in their origin would have been participatory, unlike today where we sit passively in an auditorium watching somebody else perform, or we stand and look at a picture by someone else on the wall of a museum.


WSM: How do yoi get from mother-infant interaction to the arts?

ED: To tell you, I have to bring in another piece of the puzzle.

As i just said, originally the arts were like the mother-infant interaction, they were participative, people were coordinating their visual, vocal, and kinesic behaviors together. But now I have to digress once more and describe mother-infant interaction in another respect. Earlier I mentioned that mother-infant interaction (or baby talk) is a “ritualized” behavior.

Ritualization is an important concept in behavioral biology and it is important to my hypothesis about the relationship between mother-infant interaction and the earliest arts.  Ritualized displays are common in many birds-think of peacocks, lyre birds, birds of paradise, sandhill cranes.  You see their displays in nature programs on television.   In ritualization, an ordinary behavior that is used daily, like pecking for food or preening–cleaning your wing–has been taken out of context and exaggerated and used in another context to communicate something else.  One simple example is the garganey duck.  When a male is courting a female, he will turn his head sharply and just touch a part of his wing and then turn his head away.  It’s very regularized, repeated, exaggerated.  It no longer means “I’m cleaning my wing.”  And who would even care to know that-it’s not very important.  But when it’s done in a ritualized way, the female he is signaling to knows he’s courting her.

Peacock behavior has an interesting evolutionary history.  Pheasants that aren’t as elaborate as the peacock-the peacock is a kind of pheasant-peck the ground in front of them to attract females.  It’s a good way to get the female’s attention as that’s what mother hens do to get their chicks to come.  It usually indicates that there is food.  But when ritualized, the pecking movement becomes more regularized.  In yet another species of pheasant, the male’s tail erects a little bit as he pecks the ground, making his behavior more noticeable.  And still other species don’t even peck any more but just look down at the ground as they spread a larger and patterned tail.

The peacock is the real virtuoso of ritualized pheasant courtship behavior.  He looks down but it doesn’t resemble anything like pecking for food.  It’s his magnificent tail that attracts females-so much grander than any other pheasant.  And he quivers it too.  We would never suspect that this behavior derived from a simple food-pecking enticement that originated to keep chicks close to their mothers.

There are four different things that happen during ritualization.  First, the original behavior is formalized.  Some say “simplified” or “stereotyped.”  In any case, it’s made more formal: it’s not the desultory way you would normally peck for food or clean your wing.  Second, the behavior is repeated, and not just repeated, but with what is called “typical intensity”-a regular pace, almost metronomic.  Third, it’s exaggerated.  This is unmistakable in the peacock’s tail which is enormously large and noticeable, but even when the duck repeatedly turns its head it’s noticeably different from when he is only cleaning his wing.  Fourth, the behavior is elaborated-again, the peacock’s tail has such glowing and spectacular color and patterns.  Even the male garganey duck touches a light blue patch that has evolved to be on his wing at that precise place for a courtship signal.

Mothers do these four things in interactions with babies, and people do them in the arts.  That’s the connection I make.   The mother’s face, voice, and body movements are stereotyped, repeated, exaggerated, and elaborated.  They attract attention and sustain interest, just like ritualized signals in the birds I described.  In artful behavior, artists take ordinary reality, a wall or ordinary clay or an ordinary vessel or an ordinary movement, if they’re dancers, or ordinary speech if they’re poets, and they formalize, repeat, exaggerate, elaborate.


WSM: And does neuroscience come in with ritualized behaviors?

ED: Yes, neurobiology is part of all of that.  We pay attention to things because our brains, our perceptual system-our senses–are prepared to pay attention to the things that are important to us.  Baby fowl pay attention to their mothers’ pecks on the ground. Babies prefer humans faces and voices to any other sight or sound. Our emotions, also in our brains, tell us what’s important, what to pay attention to.  Formalizing, repeating, exaggerating, and elaborating already important signals catch our attention even more effectively.

The arts take things we’re already prepared to pay attention to-colors and forms we like, subject matter that attracts us or scares us, like beautiful faces or terrifying masks, or themes like love, death, adventure.   And they use these-formalize,  repeat, exaggerate, and elaborate-and attract our attention, sustain our interest, manipulate our emotion.  And then when people are doing it together, participating, they are emotionally as well as temporally bound together-as in mother-infant interaction.

Another important effect of the arts is, I think, helping to relieve stress and anxiety.  I say this because work done by anthropologists such as Victor Turner or Arnold van Gennep points out that rituals always occur at times of transition between one state and another-for example, between childhood and puberty, between unmarried and married, between death and life, between nonexistence and birth, between want and plenty, between illness and health.  At such uncertain times, things can either get better or worse.  People are concerned, they want good outcomes to their battles, their hunts, and have anxiety about these vital matters.  I think that these ceremonies are adaptive not only because they join people together in common cause but because they relieve anxiety.  Even though they may or may not make the game come or make the rain fall or assure that the ill person lives, they give people something to do in times of anxiety.  It is better for individuals to have something to do in times of trouble rather than just freak out by oneself or do nothing at all.

Neuroscientists have shown the debilitating effects of stress hormones, which are of course chemicals in the brain that are secreted when we are anxious, enabling us to react quickly and energetically.  Engaging in social and physical activities, like sports or dancing, reduces cortisol and similar deleterious chemicals.  Again, this is another illustration of what neuroscience can tell us about the brain.  No one but me has specifically said that the arts or ritual ceremonies relieve anxiety, but I noticed that after the September 11, 2001 attacks, most people spontaneously went to churches or other public places to be with others in ceremonies that were filled with arts.  Even people who weren’t religious seemed to need to mark this unprecedented and terrifying event.  We needed well-wrought liturgy or poetry, not just the descriptions and suppositions of television reporters.  We left our living rooms to be in an altered setting like a church or park.  We were with others and even participated ourselves by singing, walking slowly holding candles, offering flowers or flags or votives.  Some people wrote poetry for the first time in their lives. We did this spontaneously at a time when nobody knew what else to do.  You couldn’t just watch TV forever all by yourself.


WSM: Steven Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist at Harvard, has famously said that the arts are like cheesecake.  During human evolution, sources of high-calories like sugar and fat were scarce so we developed a liking for them in order to be sure to have that nutrition.  Today we still like them although in a world of fast food that liking is no longer adaptive.  Similarly, he says, the arts piggy-back on appetites for attractive features but in themselves are not adaptive.  We simply press our “pleasure buttons” as when we eat cheesecake.

ED:  Steven Pinker also says that if you’re going to join people together, if you’re going to get them to work together, why would ritual evolve, or music?  Why these rather than some other behavior?  They seem too complex.

But if, as I describe, the predecessors of the behavior are already there and serve to unite a mother and infant along a temporal continuum and if mother-infant interaction uses the features that other animals use in ritualized behaviors that draw their attention and create interest and emotion-repetition, formalization, exaggeration, etc.-then there is a biological precedent for ceremonial ritual and the arts.  All humans were babies and we know that babies come into the world receptive to signals in visual, vocal, and kinesic modalities and, like other animals, to the manipulations of these by their mothers.  Young children continue to be receptive to the arts: they easily sing, move to music, dance, like to dress up and play with words, to make believe, and they practice these things in play.  In many other societies, adults are making or engaging in the arts all around them and children naturally learn to develop their innate proclivities.  Today, in our society, children’s artistic proclivities usually wither from lack of use.

I find it easy to imagine that at some point in our evolutionary past, our ancestors deliberately began to use manipulations of visual, vocal, and kinesic behaviors in ceremonies, thereby creating what we now call arts, and it had a similar coordinating or bonding effect on the participants.  Art and ritual didn’t arise from nowhere.

Although Pinker has criticized claims that the arts are adaptive-including mine-I think that if we were to talk, I could make good answers to his objections.   My ideas have been developing over a number of years, as I keep adding pieces of the puzzle, and I have not yet really put it all together in one book as comprehensively as I’ve tried to tell it to you here.

I think there are other problems with Pinker’s views that are part of emphases in present-day science.  Cognitive scientists today are mainly concerned with cognition and neuroscientists with percepts and preferences.  But the arts go beyond cognition or preferences for, say, consonant intervals over dissonant intervals in music.  Emotion and motivation are difficult to study, but they are surely essential to our experience of the arts.  The arts take place in time and that is also difficult to study-the unfolding effects.

I also think that cooperation is as important to human evolution as competition.  We have to be concerned with Number One, but part of that self-interest is a concern for the people around us.  And rituals do help us get along with the people we are around,


WSM: What you’re echoing is Darwin’s belief that groups can develop adaptations.

ED:  Darwin thought that sympathy was an important human trait and he mentioned briefly that groups that cooperated would out-compete groups that did not.  But what is called “group selection” is a contentious topic in today’s evolutionary psychology.  After retiring, William McNeill, an eminent historian, wrote  a fascinating book based on an observation he made while a military recruit in World War II.  He had noticed the exhilarating feeling he had when marching with other soldiers in drill.  He called it “muscular bonding” and found many examples of it in animals and throughout human history.  His title describes it all:  Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History.   When we are moving together with other people, just as in mother-infant interaction, we bond with them: it’s another artifact of our nervous system and it has deep evolutionary roots.

I don’t think that critics like Pinker are considering the muscular bonding of ceremonial dances when they talk about art as superfluous.  Ceremonies, the earliest arts, are participatory.  Even onlookers are usually clapping or stamping or moving.  I suspect that the prehistoric cave and rock paintings were the site of participatory ceremonies.

Although the belief systems of participants are “cognitive,” the arts appeal to their emotions and reinforce the beliefs through participation.  It is pretty boring just to speak or say important things but if they are part of a multimedia spectacle, we are likely to be seduced and persuaded by them and to remember them.  And at the end, the people who sing together, who listen to the same things together, really do, for that moment, feel united.  Their anxiety or stress is reduced and they are more cooperative.  This unification seems to be real and not just a side-effect.  I think it’s true that in human societies, both the group as a whole and the individuals themselves will function more adaptively than individuals and groups that don’t have unifying rituals.

When I refer to the arts as adaptive, I’m really talking about this kind of participatory art, where all the senses are involved and where the experience occurs in time.  In such an event, the participants’ expectations can be manipulated, there is repetition, exaggeration, elaboration, and formalization, all attracting their attention and holding their interest, molding their emotions, and I think that has been very adaptive to humans throughout their history.


WSM: It’s probably the case that I know just enough not to be able to critique intelligently, but your work makes so much sense.

ED: Well, thank you.  I think that it does.  But it really hasn’t been examined enough by evolutionary psychologists.  I’ve sort of been pioneering this, at least in treating all of the arts. There are a lot of people looking at the adaptive uses of literature.

But overall, there are only a handful of people doing this art stuff.  I think there are some reasons for it.  One, it isn’t considered very “sexy.”  A man who wants to make a career in the sciences will probably not study the arts.  I met a psychologist at UC Davis who early on, in the early 70s, wrote an interesting article about ethology and art.  I met him at a conference much later and told him that I’d always remembered his article and wondered whether he written anything more like that.  He said that he had been told by his thesis supervisor that he couldn’t make a career out of such a subject so he was leaving it until his retirement, like William H. McNeill!

So I think that’s one reason. Another is that if you are a scientist, you tend to have an analytic kind of mind, and you’ve had to spend a lot of time mastering many difficult subjects and you may just not have had time to devote to the arts, learning about them or practicing them.  They are foreign territory.  And the same thing with people in the arts.  They often are uneasy with science and its statistics and empiricism-they don’t know or care very much about it because it seems to go against what they know about their art.  It’s hard to learn enough about either field to bring them together.

I was perhaps able to do that because I didn’t have an academic career.  I was-in Sri Lanka at least-a “kept woman,” so I had time to read and think.  Later, when I was in New York, there was just me, indulging my own interest.  It’s taken a lot of sacrifice.but when I look back it is almost as if once I embarked on it I couldn’t stop.  It has its own momentum.  And it has taken a long time-over 30 years since my first published paper.  It’s only now that I’ve been able to pull it together from enough points of view so that I can, I think, make a carefully-argued case that can counter any objection.  Or at least I think so.  No one has challenged me yet.

My first book, What Is Art For?, is now 20 years old.  Specialists in any one of the fields I synthesized there can quickly see that I didn’t know everything there is to know about their individual subject.  Homo Aestheticus, written when I was in the U.S. and had access to modern libraries, is more informed.   And as for Art and Intimacy, I don’t think most scientists, or most men, are very interested in mothers and babies.  I suspect that the title alone puts them off.  Even you said that it is the one book of mine you hadn’t read-and it is the most recent!  I think I have to write one more book so that my real synthesis gets out there.

But when you say it makes a lot of sense to you, it also makes a lot of sense to people who are artists, in every art-visual art, music, dance, theatre.  My biggest audiences have been in arts education and arts therapy and the crafts.  All three of those fields are considered peripheral by mainstream art departments in which students have ambitions to “make it” as artists in the elite art world.  My work deals with the arts from the time of the Pleistocene and arts that anyone can do-children, someone who wrote a poem after 9/11, the person who decorates the house for holidays, who likes to make things that they care about “special.”

Arts teachers, arts therapists, and crafts workers say that my work gives them theoretical justification for what they know works and what they know is true.  My daughter, who works in youth theatre, finds that all kids can do drama and be transformed by it.  She sees that every day.

I can explain it to scientists too, but at a conference you have 15 minutes to give a paper.


WSM: You seem to have caught E.O. Wilson’s attention.

ED: Yes, years ago I sent him What Is Art For?, and he wrote to thank me.  Then two or three years later, he wrote to tell me he had just read it and had learned a lot.  So I sent him Homo Aestheticus and he subsequently cited some of my ideas in Consilience.  He appreciates attempts to bring the arts and humanities within the embrace of the sciences, not to “reduce” them to scientific principles but to show that they are an inherent, necessary part of human life.