That Seahorse-Shaped Space in Our Brain

How do painters create feeling and expression from inanimate objects—mere paint and canvas? We tend to think of such animating magic in masks from Africa or Papua New Guinea, donned by shamanic figures in rituals and dances. But to paraphrase one of my art professors from undergraduate school: Even while looking at a genuinely moving Rembrandt painting, in the end, you’re just looking at colored dirt.

Maybe the key to seeing art, and indeed becoming an artist, lays hidden in childhood. Educational psychologists have shown that young children go through a developmental stage of animism. In their eyes, inanimate objects seem alive. Think of a time when you genuinely wondered if the man in the moon was real, and felt a hushed thrill watching the animated broomsticks in Disney's Fantasia.

Pablo Picasso could draw like an old master by the age of fifteen, but then famously spent the rest of his life trying to draw like a child. “Every child is an artist," he quipped, “The problem is how to remain an artist once one grows up." In a similar vein, Freud argued that artists have a better recall of early childhood memory than the general population. Our deepest memories are stored in the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped space in the brain that does not develop fully for the first few years of life. That’s why we can’t remember being two years old. If only we could, imagine the wondrous strange art we’d create, artists and so-called non-artists alike.

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