Art is a form of cognitive play with pattern. Just as communication exists in many species, even in bacteria, and human language derives from but redirects animal communication along many unforeseen new routes, so play exists in many species, but the unique cognitive play of human art redirects it in new ways and to new functions…

Committed to the cognitive niche, humans crave pattern because it can tell us so much. The more our minds can handle multiple patterns at multiple levels, the more successfully we can predict and act. We therefore have what physicist Edward Purcell calls an “avidity for pattern.” As Stephen Jay Gould notes: “The human mind delights in finding pattern. . . . No other habit of thought lies so deeply within the soul of a small creature trying to make sense of a complex world not constructed for it.” Extreme informational chaos, the absence of pattern, as in whiteout or dense fog, can even cause distress and loss of sensory function.

Art offers the opposite of chaos. It concentrates and plays with the world’s profusion of patterns, with its patterns of interrelated or intersecting patterns. Our perception of pattern and of deviation from it produces strong emotional reactions. Art engages us by appealing to our appetite for pattern at multiple levels, in producing or perceiving bodily movement, shapes, surfaces, or sounds, words or miniature worlds. Like play, art therefore provokes us to continue the activities it offers long enough and to resume them often enough to modify our neural circuitry over time.

Brian Boyd
The American Scholar

Segment of a piece by El Anatsui at the De Young Museum