Sehnsucht (‘Longing’) by the Nederlands Dans Theater at Sadler’s Wells, London, in 2014. Photo by Leo Mason/Popperfoto/Getty

Essay/
Dance and theatre

Sehnsucht (‘Longing’) by the Nederlands Dans Theater at Sadler’s Wells, London, in 2014. Photo by Leo Mason/Popperfoto/Getty

To the core

A devastating loss can shatter the façade we put up for others, exposing our deepest, rawest self. A work of art can do the same

Julia F Christensen

Sehnsucht (‘Longing’) by the Nederlands Dans Theater at Sadler’s Wells, London, in 2014. Photo by Leo Mason/Popperfoto/Getty

Julia F Christensen

is a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, and author of Tanzen Ist Die Beste Medizin (2018), or 'Dance is the Best Medicine', forthcoming in English in 2022.

5,700 words

Edited by Pam Weintraub

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‘Don’t show off! Don’t pretend to be, be!’

The piercing voice of my stern ballet teacher with the stick and the square glasses still echoes in my mind. These two sentences were standard at almost every rehearsal when I was a young ballet student. Something about how we danced wasn’t quite right, even though, technically, what we were doing was correct. ‘The audience won’t look at you just because you do a perfect grand jeté!’ he howled at me in a temper tantrum just before a show. His desperation with us was more painful than the blisters on our feet in the pointe shoes.

The conundrum remained, until one day, him being French, he exclaimed: ‘Mais nooo, je veux du vrai!’ (‘No! I want something real!’) Now, finally, I got it. Authenticity can mean true to provenance, or faithful to a model. For existentialists, authenticity implies truthfulness and genuineness of expression, to be true to yourself.

It’s true. We young ballet students were rather preoccupied with the looks of our dance moves, with technical perfection and whether our arms and legs traced the right lines and shapes. ‘Be ourselves’ was something we did, only at night, in the discotheques, but not in a formal ballet performance on stage.

We were wrong. What we should have asked ourselves is this: does it make a difference to a viewer if a movement is ‘du vrai’ or just technically correct and pretty? Today, I’m a psychologist and neuroscientist who studies dance from a scientific point of view. Our experiments show that it matters a lot.

Together with Manos Tsakiris, a neuroscientist at the Warburg Institute in London, we invited a group of dancers to perform different sequences. Each sequence was filmed twice: once, danced to technical perfection, and then a second time, endowed, in addition, with the dancer’s personal expressivity, ‘du vrai’. We blurred the dancers’ faces on the videos and made the clips black and white. We then asked people to rate them, one by one, in terms of how much they liked each clip. Of course, we didn’t tell people that they were watching two categories of clips. Can you guess? People with no dance experience at all preferred dance movements that had ‘du vrai’, over the very same movements when they were performed with mere technical perfection.

Ballet aside, there is an authentic ‘me’ inside all of us. This self contains our true thoughts and feelings, our personality, our wishes, dreams and fears, everything that makes us us. The true self is genuinely present, unmuffled, and visible to anyone who cares to look. However, according to the teachings of the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, most of us outwardly live as an unauthentic me, a façade. ‘Unauthentic me’ is ‘me’ plus layers of social convention added on the outside, like a coating, to make the outside appearance appealing to others and ourselves. For example, that fake smile that you put on to greet the colleague you don’t like? According to Kierkegaard and other existentialists, this smile corrupts you.

The first scientific assessment of true and fake smiles resulted in what we today know as the ‘Duchenne smile’. In the 19th century, the French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne studied the physiology of the smile, and found that true smiles and fake smiles require different facial muscles. A Duchenne smile raises two sets of muscles, both corners of the mouth (the ‘cheek raiser’ or zygomatic major muscle, a muscle that makes the mouth corners go upwards), and it tickles the muscles around the eyes (the orbicularis oculi). A fake smile, the toothpaste-ad smile, doesn’t have this interplay between different facial muscle groups. And here’s the catch: we can’t control this. A true smile engages the muscles of our face in a different way than if we try to smile at will. In today’s modern psychological experiments, when asked to rate genuineness, people distinguish between the two types of smiles in a split second, even without being aware of these muscle differences.

We make split-second judgments about people, and we’re often right with these hunches

Neuroscientists have studied what happens in the brain when we look at authentic, true smiles and pretend-smiles: our brain catches these subtle changes very efficiently! The process also functions the other way around: people who have their face ‘coated’ with Botox injections for a smoother façade, in fact, incapacitate the orbicularis oculi around the eyes. This means that they can’t smile genuinely anymore.

This muscle is important for many genuine emotional expressions. In 2011, the psychologists David Neal and Tanya Chartrand, from the University of Southern California and Duke University respectively, compared a group of women who’d had a Botox injection with a group who hadn’t. They asked both groups to look at photographs of different people, and to rate how strongly these were expressing their feelings. Can you guess? The Botox group simply didn’t feel others’ emotions as strongly. Several studies have confirmed and extended these findings since then. People without a functioning orbicularis oculi and other facial muscles experience a flattening of their emotional life. What remains is a sleek outside coating with no sense for true expressivity, ‘du vrai’.

Our body language reflects our authentic self, too. A string of studies has shown that children and adults distinguish very well between genuine and staged bodily expressions of emotions. This is true even when researchers remove all information from the video clips, and participants see only little dot figures moving on a screen.

Authentic expressivity in movement indicates deeper biological qualities that are otherwise difficult to grasp from the outside. Researchers have used freestyle dancing as a way to assess people’s authentic and unmuffled body language. In one such study, where women were asked to watch dance videos, men were judged to be better dancers if their movements suggested greater fitness and strength.

In short, someone might be saying positive words while their body language communicates an entirely different story to our brain. Much research today shows that we make split-second judgments about people, and we’re often right with these hunches. Something feels off about that person? That’s probably your brain telling you that something might not be quite genuine about their expression.

For sure, life in society mandates certain conventions, certain rules and laws that enable us to live together peacefully, so that my freedom doesn’t intrude on yours. However, sometimes these rules and conventions take over, and our behaviour becomes a performance that never stops, a pretence that has little to do with our true thoughts and feelings.

The human masquerade has got something to do with how our brain works. During the Palaeolithic, while modern humans were still evolving, it made good sense to cluster together in groups. Having a brain that likes to belong made our ancestors stronger and more likely to survive attacks, the cold and other adversities. Besides, on a basic biological level, our bodies need social contact. We need physical closeness to maintain homeostasis, or physiological stability. Hugs, caresses, smiles and a glance in the eyes are potent biochemical signals to our brain, giving our immune system a boost and activating the relaxation response in the body. The pleasure and comforting feelings that we derive from social interaction are the result of precisely these biochemical processes.

Thanks to a complex neurohormone cocktail of bonding hormones, our brain happens to like and to bond with those who move like us, look like us, and like the same things as us. In fact, our brain has an in-built tendency toward conformity. When we behave within the norms of our group, this pings our reward system. It motivates our brain to pretend to be as expected. We feel the pleasant knock of pleasure when we please our peers. Our brain literally includes the hardware to connect with others, and to conform and to adapt.

But sometimes we overdo it. This conformity-reward brain-link can take us far from ourselves; when we pay too little attention to ‘le vrai’, we create a gap, between who we really are and our image.

That’s when existentialists such as Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Martin Heidegger roar out loud to make us understand that acting in accordance with our true self is the only authentic way to propel our lives. But are they correct? Are there actually benefits for those inclined to reduce the gap between our self and the image we give? Important psychological research shows that the answer to the above question is yes.

People vary hugely in how well they can consciously name these coded messages from the body

There are two levels of authenticity – your own subjective sense of self and what others perceive; if you’re not authentic to yourself, you’re not authentic to others. Empirical evidence suggests that people who are more driven by ‘exteroceptive’ signals from the environment than by ‘interoceptive’ signals from the body have poorer emotional awareness, fewer coping skills, and greater risk of developing anxiety, eating and other mental disorders than people who are able to pay more attention to interoceptive signals, who stay attuned to their inner self. In one study, the Israeli research scientist Yona Kifer and colleagues were able to show that even just recalling autobiographical episodes of authenticity, including moments where one felt completely genuine and true to one’s self, was related to significant increases in wellbeing and happiness.

Of course, some people’s brains are better at detecting ‘le vrai’ than others. Interoception is the perceptual sense that catches our bodily signals from within, and tells our conscious mind what’s going on, from attunement to heartbeats, aches and pains to the range of emotions. Psychologists sometimes refer to this ability as the sixth sense.

Research shows a strong relationship between our ability to detect interoceptive signals in our body and our ability to detect and correctly recognise both our own emotions and the emotional expressions of others. People vary hugely in how well they can consciously name these coded messages from the body. To assess this further, researchers use the ‘heartbeat detection task’. It has now become the gold standard to measure a person’s interoceptive accuracy. Participants are asked to count their own heartbeats, without taking their pulse and without knowing for how long they should do so. All the while, a researcher is monitoring their actual number of heart beats via some small electrodes attached to the participant’s chest. The counted number of heartbeats is compared with the actual number of heartbeats, leading to a metric designating the person’s level of attunement to their internal signals, and this has been labelled ‘interoceptive accuracy’.

Empirical evidence suggests that a high interoceptive accuracy can be an advantage. How tuned in we are to our own body influences how well we understand the signals that are expressed from our own and from another person’s body. In a typical emotion-recognition experiment, participants are asked to watch a series of photos or videos where actors show different emotional expressions. Participants are then asked to judge the emotions they see as quickly and correctly as they can. Artists, dancers and musicians often outperform people without any artistic training on such tasks, suggesting that maybe the training in bodily expression that these artists go through in itself makes them more attuned to the emotional expressions of others.

‘The daf [a Persian drum] takes me out of myself, and the tombak [another Persian drum] brings me back to myself. It feels like breathing,’ says the musician Mohammad Reza Mortazavi. ‘When I play, I’m playing with my ears, my heart, not with “notes”. I don’t want to control the music, it controls me instead, it is me.’

While artists engage with their art, they dive deep down, to where their true ‘me’ is, unconstrained by social conventions, unharmed and unimpressed by the hardships of everyday life.

Of course, sometimes hardship is an opportunity. Difficult times can peel away all the layers of social varnish – the artificial smile, the insincere greetings to people we don’t want to greet. The piercing pain of a break in our world is sometimes enough to elicit the purest ‘I’ and call forth the true self.

It is the year 1985. We’re in a small village on the Costa del Sol in Spain. It’s August – which means that the afternoon temperature reaches about 40ºC (104ºF). A man is looking, slightly puzzled, at his house on Calle Mariposa. It’s a beautiful house. A well-groomed garden with majestic palm trees decorates the path up to the grand wooden portal. White garden furniture is pleasantly arranged in the shade of a huge fig tree. The whole scene signals wealth. But the massive iron gate is locked, and the man’s key doesn’t seem to fit.

He doesn’t yet know what events are about to unfold. He’s a successful architect, a Dutch expat, who has established a new life in the sun with his beautiful wife. He had quickly become a respected and influential personality in the village where he now lived, and was renowned for his work. Until this day.

He had left the house in the morning for his daily chores and is now returning home for an afternoon nap in the shade, before his afternoon appointments.

He rings the bell several times. His wife doesn’t seem to be home. Strange. She would usually expect him at this time of day. So, instead, he goes to the café at the corner. This was the time before mobile phones, so there was nothing else to do than sit and wait. To have coffees, like the Spanish men do during the long, hot August afternoons. He has one after the other. Since he doesn’t carry any money, he just rings up a tab. He’ll pay later.

He then returns to the gates of his home, but the house lays empty. His wife doesn’t return. Not that evening. Not the following either. In fact, she’s not even in Spain anymore. But, at the time, the architect doesn’t know that. He goes to the police. He’s grown worried that something might have happened to her.

The police officer doesn’t ask ‘How long has she been missing?’ nor ‘Have you tried to call friends and family where she might be?’

Instead, he asks a very strange question: ‘Are you sure it’s your house?’

It was harder to put on that smile he’d fabricated for himself when he’d first arrived in the village

‘Yes, of course,’ the architect shrugs off the question as a bad joke, and fills in the missing person form. At the time, he doesn’t catch the subtle muscle twitches around mouth and eyes on the policeman’s face, giving away his true emotion.

‘He clearly knew something – already at that point,’ says Joe (not his real name) today. Something had felt off. But Joe didn’t see, not yet.

Many people in the village turned their back on him in the coming days and weeks, giggling at his ordeal while walking past him, smiling sugary-sweet. Joe told himself it would all be fine in the end, just one big misunderstanding. But it was harder to put on that confident-benevolent smile that he’d fabricated for himself when he’d first arrived in the village, to signal: ‘I’m a foreigner but I’m your friend.’

Joe secretly slept in the dunes at the beach for a week – it was still warm enough. He was able to have a bite to eat at some of the local restaurants from time to time, putting it on the tab. Every morning, he bathed in the sea.

He was sick with worry over his wife until a distant relative of one of her acquaintances gave him the score. ‘Don’t be a fool, Joe. Your wife has tricked you. Remember how you agreed to let her take care of all administrative duties? Well – now the house is in her name. As are all your assets. The house is on sale and she’s off to Barbados with her new lover.’

There had even been a goodbye party with some trusted friends.

What had gone wrong? One explanation is that in all the pretence, the show-off, the façade of the beautiful house, Joe had lost connection with himself. An even more likely explanation is that alienation from the self happens to many of us living as expats in cultures that are foreign to our own. As we try to fit in, to please our new peers, we lose connection with the cultural web that made us us – and, with this, we lose the connection to ourselves.

Joe had added too much social coating on the outside, inadvertently muffling his ability to detect warning signals about the genuineness of his external social world. His wife had had an affair, his house wasn’t his anymore, and the villagers didn’t really appreciate him. They played along only so long as he humoured them. For sure, there had been warning signals. Much neuroscience research shows that our brain picks up deceptive intents in the millisecond range. But Joe hadn’t seen them.

Without being fully aware of it, we receive messages from each other through six channels all the time: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and our interoception. Using the information that’s continuously arriving from the physical and social world, our brain is a true detector of ‘du vrai’.

In one experiment, researchers asked participants to listen to authentic and play-acted emotion in speech samples. In scans of their brains, they found that only the genuine utterances engaged the brain circuits involved in recognising another mind. When the utterance was play-acted, this window into understanding the other’s mind remained closed, in a neural sense. Another study compared genuine speech recorded from the radio with staged expressions by actors and non-actors alike. Participants judged the radio patter to be significantly more authentic. A computerised algorithm detected this difference too, and showed that enacted expressions of emotion have a different speech contour than genuine expressions. And this is the reason why they are inherently encoded differently at the basic physiological level by our brain.

Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist at Indiana University, says that our body’s physiology is directly modulated by our social environment. One pathway runs from the brain to facial muscles, including those controlling expression and eye contact. For instance, back at the Spanish Costa del Sol, the policeman’s facial expressions and body language made direct connection with Joe’s own nervous system – causing the striated muscles of Joe’s face to mirror ever so slightly what the policeman was really feeling, sending signals to Joe’s brain. Joe’s brain caught the mismatch – and perceived it as a gut-feeling that something was wrong, even if he couldn’t say why.

Perhaps this is because feeling authentic makes individuals feel morally adequate

Or maybe it was the handshake when Joe entered the police station? A handshake can tell us more within a few seconds than five minutes of conversation. That is because touch is a powerful communicator of interpersonal information through biochemicals that are transmitted via skin contact, such as androstenes and other signal molecules communicating emotion from fear to disgust. In one study, researchers obtained sweat samples from donors after they’d experienced episodes of disgust and fear. Another group of participants was asked to sniff these samples. All the while, the researchers were measuring their facial muscle activity with electromyography, a technique by which small electrodes on the face can detect the smallest of twitches. Astonishingly, the receivers showed the same emotional facial expressions and behavioural reactions associated with these states: disgust and fear. Could the policeman smell Joe’s fear?

Yet Joe’s inability to arrive at the truth is a harbinger of a trend we see today, online. ‘We live in a society powered by the image and external appearances like never before,’ says Tsakiris, who is a philosopher as well as a neuroscientist. Little is known about the long-term psychological impact of this relatively recent trend. The technical possibilities of image and video optimisation and manipulation are delicious and unlimited. But what does this do to our human brain? The fact is that we don’t yet know.

When we engage with fashion, beauty and self-promotion on social media, there are important psychological and also biological processes at play. This type of engagement focuses entirely on the outside image of the self and on the reaction of the outside to this picture. Some people take selfies while they drive cars, sometimes killing cyclists and pedestrians on the street around them. These atrocities are committed by normal, sentient human beings who would normally be guided by empathy to avoid harming other people at all costs.

It rests with future research to assess how activities that focus attention on external dimensions of image and status will reduce empathic abilities and the all-important connection to our interoceptive realm.

More authenticity would be better for society writ large. In 2012, the psychologist Diana Pinto and colleagues from the University of Leicester in the UK asked participants to fill out a questionnaire on the authenticity of their lives, through choices such as: ‘I don’t know how I feel inside,’ and ‘I usually do what other people tell me to do,’ or ‘I always stand by what I believe in.’ When faced with acts of unfairness in a second part of the study, the more authentic participants reacted with less aggression.

Perhaps this is because feeling authentic makes individuals feel morally adequate. Indeed, a study in 2015 by the behavioural scientist Francesca Gino from the Harvard Business School and her colleagues showed that feelings of inauthenticity filled people with psychological discomfort, even a sense of impurity, and made them more prone to compensatory behaviours such as repeated washing.

It’s easy to imagine that, during the time of Joe’s ordeal, the water supplier might have registered an unusually high water consumption in the area. Maybe the villagers around him felt the urge to wash their hands more often? Perhaps there was a surge in people attending church services, or maybe donations to Caritas (the NGO working to end poverty) received more donations than before.

The rock musician Jim Morrison is quoted as saying: ‘Most people love you for who you pretend to be. To keep their love, you keep pretending – performing.’

Joe felt this first-hand. He’d lost everything. The pain he felt at that news, and the fear for what might now happen to him, was visceral. It came from right inside him, ripping his chest, taking his breath. Not one thought was spent on external appearances and on fitting in anymore. His whole being turned inwards, terrified at the injury he’d suffered, and paralysed at the prospect of nothingness in his future.

Joe remembers this string of traumatic days in a blur. There is only one clear memory that haunts him to this day: walking in one direction through the village while everyone else is walking the other way, toward the main square of the city for the Assumption of Mary festivities on 15 August. People look annoyed at him because they have to step out of his way, annoyed that he walks against the current, or (perhaps) annoyed because they’d like to do the same but can’t.

He found another way: painting, a habit that would keep him close to himself, to his genuine feelings

But Joe had changed direction. He’d started to listen inside himself. Inside, he felt shocked, sad and the odd one out for the first time.

He had always been a winner. Everything had always been good for him. He had worked hard, had a beautiful wife, children. He hadn’t realised that, next to his world, there was a parallel one that tolerated him only as long as he had money to entertain them.

Now he felt like a small fish alone in the ocean. He was homeless. And he was surrounded by many other fish much bigger and also nastier than himself. They were all swimming the other way, fiercely attempting to bite each other and him, grinning their false smiles. He’d always seen them, but they hadn’t dared attack him. Now that he was vulnerable, they closed in.

But Joe didn’t succumb. He found another way: painting, a habit that would keep him close to himself, to his genuine feelings, with as little social coating as possible. Joe built up a new existence from zero. At first, he relied on Caritas, that wonderful organisation for people in need. Then, fate.

One rainy November’s day, he found a beautiful gold-painted wooden frame among other waste at a street corner. It was alike a freezeframe for his thoughts. He remained there, immobile under the rain. As he watched the frame, it became an aquarium to his inner eye, and he saw fish swimming in it, biting each other. And there was one fish that looked different, moved slowly against the current of the others, quite content.

Joe took the frame and propped it on the wall in his dorm. Every day he went out to search the waste at street corners for usable items and sold them at local flea markets. When he’d saved up enough money, he bought painting materials. Then he started to draw the fish. He felt peace every time he sat down with his little fish behind the paper, as they came to life, swimming about their daily chores, some grinning uglily, some socially coated, and some just gracefully waggling their own authentic waggle.

After a while, he took some of his little painted fish to the flea markets and sold them with significant success. People seemed to see themselves in the pictures: one nice fish, the odd one out, swimming happily against a stream of ugly grinning and biting fish. Be different, be happy became his motto. He wrote that on the paintings, and people loved it.

He saved up money and found some friendly people who rented him a house, surely ‘barely fit for human habitation’, but Joe turned it into a home, little by little, every day, roaming the streets and alleys for rubbish that could be reused. His knowledge of craftsmanship from his life as an architect became a whole new asset, in creating a survival base for himself: art.

Hardship can lead us back to our authentic self, providing we’re resilient enough to emerge on the other side. But there is a gentler way. The arts! Paintings, movies, dances, statues, poems, stories, architecture – all have the power to move us emotionally, make us feel small and out of our depth, force us to re-think … and to re-feel.

The emotional impact of an artwork can be life-changing. The emerging multidisciplinary research domain of neuroaesthetics studies ‘aesthetic emotions’ – those emotions we might feel while we experience common events in our lives, but also in response to the arts: fear, wonder, sympathy, heartache, awe. Besides, research in this domain finds that the arts trigger a built-in distancing mechanism in our brain that helps us derive joy, pleasure and other aesthetic emotions even from negative events that would usually cause stress.

Think of Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or that thriller you watched on TV the other night. When an artwork touches us, suddenly there’s this feeling inside, a memory of ‘me’. To return to your authentic self, you can wield the arts like a sledgehammer, such as Lars von Trier’s film The Idiots, or use it as a gentle brush, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, tickling our senses back to life. Von Trier said it well: ‘A film should be like a stone in your shoe,’ reminding us of the self we’ve left under wraps.

Consider dance. The neuroscientist Dong-Seon Chang tells the story of how he witnessed the performance of a dance piece choreographed by Ohad Naharin to the song Echad Mi Yodea for the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel. All the dancers moved exactly the same, were dressed the same, had the same facial expressions. Every once in a while, one of them would break out of the circle but, each time, the dancer would be re-absorbed. Dong-Seon shares how deeply he was touched by this display of what he understood as a call to conformity. As a child at school, he’d been painfully forced to wear the same, eat the same, say the same as everyone else. This dance stirred that memory, and made him remember to remember who he is.

For me (a Dane) it is, paradoxically, Argentine tango music from the 1930s and ’40s that brings me back to myself. After an accident made a professional dance career impossible for me, Argentine tango as a hobby became my personal mind-medicine, my movement meditation. When I start to feel corrupted by the conformity pressures and yes-saying bias that’s mandatory to survive in the academic world, I escape into a milonga, one of those red-gold-lighted social dance events that take place, every evening, all over the world. When I dance, I connect back to who I am during the three minutes of a tango song. Now, during the social distancing and lockdown of the pandemic, when any social dancing has become impossible, switching on a tango music piece stirs those aesthetic emotions, and brings back the strong feeling of ‘me’.

Be true to yourself, but virtuously so

Of course, authenticity is not enough. There’s a fine line between being authentically you and, for instance, narcissism. I have a favourite dance teacher. I won’t say his name. He’s a star in the US. His style is authentic in every sense of the word. This person has taught me everything, opened a new world to me, told me secrets about movements and about the music, shared as much as he could. Living abroad, I miss these classes, and I miss dancing with people who have been trained by this teacher.

But. There is a but (and this teacher is losing many students because of it). Like many high-profile artists, he struggles with social conventions, with adaptation. This sensibility can cause one to lash out, to feel misunderstood, and to go to great lengths to maintain one’s authentic ‘me’. Sometimes, such people can overstep, be overly defensive and aggressive. Then, protecting the turf of their inner world seems narcissistic, indeed.

Aristotle gave us the formula for getting it right. Be true to yourself, but virtuously so. According to him, art should be practised in the context of good habits, then positive change will gently ripple through all layers of your life. Therefore, for Aristotle, the arts are an important building block of a happy, authentic life.

Joe does yoga every morning between 6am and 7am, has a fresh orange juice with a café con leche and a croissant at a local café in his home village of Santanyí, and then goes to his studio, painting, creating, thinking, imagining. For himself, for you, for me, for everybody. To help himself, and whoever cares to look, to reconnect with their authentic ‘me’.

This is a good habit.

Now, you might say: ‘But he’s a professional artist, how could I paint?’ In fact, research on the biomedical health effects of many art forms such as dancing, music and painting shows that professional and competitive activities are quite unhealthy if not managed well. On the other hand, artistic activities that we practise as hobbies, have very positive health effects, from lowering stress hormones to enhancing sleep.

In addition, longitudinal measurements show that, for many people, enjoying the arts as a spectator in a museum, a theatre or an opera house increases health and wellbeing, too. The key is that we engage with the arts, as spectators or creators, and let them move us, stirring our aesthetic emotions, as we take off en route back to ourselves.

Aristotle said: ‘The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.’ Millennia later, the French ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem said: ‘Technical perfection is insufficient. It is an orphan without the true soul of a dancer.’ In the same vein, the American choreographer Martha Graham said: ‘Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.’ Even in ballets, such as Jewels (1967) by the American choreographer George Balanchine, where the sole aim of the movement is the expression of beauty, there’s an artistic intention other than ‘a perfect execution’. The beauty expressed in the movements of Jewels comes from the quality of their expressive intention. Without this, it wouldn’t be dance but movement mechanics, contortionism or acrobatics.

Go find art that touches you. Your art is what moves you, full stop. Otherwise, it’s useless for you as an authenticity drill, no matter how many millions it might fetch at auction. Modern neuroscience shows that artworks that touch us stimulate feelings in the observer through neurobiological mechanisms in which the spectator mirrors the creator. Some artworks will resonate with who you are, others won’t.

And when you make art yourself, remember this: actions activate specific patterns of neural activity in our brain. It is up to us to make our brain light up in the best possible patterns, through the actions we perform. That’s how what we do shapes who we are.

What pattern would you like to sculpt in your brain? Next time you feel dizzy and strangely out of focus, corrupted by the role you play at work or the formal social coating that makes your heart scream, go to a museum, listen to the music of your youth, copy a painting by sticking it against the window, knit a scarf, dance a dance. Let aesthetic emotions guide you back to yourself.

And if you visit Mallorca, go visit Joe, a special, different man in his art gallery in the small village of Santanyí. Don’t expect him to speak many words: if you catch a smile, you’re lucky. Too many disappointments, too many breaches of trust. Don’t insist. Respect his space and also his boundaries. Let his art speak to you instead. Let his art make a crack in your social coating, drill through to you, to your true feelings, your ‘me’.

Don’t pity him. Joe has made peace with his lonely past of obnoxious fish biting each other. He is one of the most harmonious and happy people I know, remembering to remember that awful day of 15 August 1985 when he went against the current, on canvas, and which brought him back to himself.

To read more on art and the self, visit Psyche, a digital magazine from Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychological knowhow, philosophical understanding and artistic insight.

Julia F Christensen

is a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, and author of Tanzen Ist Die Beste Medizin (2018), or 'Dance is the Best Medicine', forthcoming in English in 2022.

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