I once saw a short film about the famous experiment where research scientists gave brushes, paint, and large sheets of paper to a number of chimpanzees, and then left them to their own devices. Soon, the chimps became so engrossed in daubing colour on the paper that they neglected their usual mating and eating habits. In a sense, they had become crude abstract artists! The important thing to note is that, while mating and eating are necessary for survival, daubing paint is not.

Mind Related Activities

Mind related activities can be so absorbing we neglect vital functions such as eating. (Photos: public domain)

The chimps were demonstrating that mind-related activity is so powerfully rewarding it can overpower even such basic life-sustaining drives as hunger and lust. If the effect is so strong in chimpanzees, we can easily see why human creators, with their more-powerful minds, behave the way they do. Here is the doorway that humans have walked through as we evolved beyond being just animals. Once our intelligence reached a certain point, mind became the primary driving force in our evolutionary development. Importantly, this is true not only because we became better at hunting and gathering, but also because mind is useful for much more than sharpening our survival skills.

Evolutionary biology ignores the intrinsic rewards of mind-related activities and relegates reason to the status of a mere appendage designed to promote copulation and feeding. In this view, humans are merely exceptionally intelligent animals. However, in both chimps and humans, mental activities can push aside basic drives, a reality that suggests mind is a drive in its own right. The workings of the mind yield an intrinsic reward, just like eating, drinking, and copulating. Reason (or mind) is not an appendage; it is an equal.

Mind makes creativity possible. The wide range of human behaviours and activities that transcend what is required to survive are the things that set humans apart from the other species on our planet. All of those activities and behaviours have come into being because of mind. We have taken over from the dire necessities of evolution and begun to create ourselves. The ancients would say we have become as gods.

As the daubing chimpanzees demonstrated, the rewards related to mental activity exceed those of other drives. Mental activity shunts aside basic drives, which subside when sated in any case. The rewards of mind-related activity are constant and are sustainable for extended periods, the phenomenon now known as “flow.” Humans exposed to these rewards quickly realize the truth, and if they have the necessary resources, change their lives. Those with strong reasoning skills adopt the intellectual lifestyle known as “the life of the mind,” immerse themselves in “the writer’s life,” or take up science. Those who possess strong associative and intuitive abilities may become artisans or artists. Most of us love to indulge in a mind-related activity of some kind. These would include reading, word puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, video games, surfing the net, and so on. Not all of us are “brainy” or artistic, but we all have a mind.

6 thoughts on “The Intrinsic Rewards of Mental Activity

  1. I know what you mean, Lucinda. We have the endorphin highs of the long distance runners, high-octane exercisers, and so on. However, some physical activities have a surprisingly large mental component (tennis or rock climbing to cite a couple) which may be the real reason why participants in these sports enjoy them so much. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the fellow who coined the term “flow,” did not restrict the concept to intellectual or artistic pursuits.

  2. An intriguing point, Thomas. And singing too, I wonder? Having always been a terrible singer (people might pay me NOT to sing) I couldn’t comment on that, but I did know a rock climber and his reason seemed to me to be the same one that makes the martial arts so addictive – that adrenaline rush…

  3. Lucinda, your comment has been rattling around in my head for days and prompted a major outbreak of nostalgia.

    Csikszentmihalyi specifically studied rock climbers when he was formulating his theories about flow. Since he was looking to expand psychological ideas beyond the more-obvious cerebral occupations, his emphasis was on the mental aspects of physical activities. I think people get rewards from sports at several levels: flow, the endorphin high, the adrenalin rush you mention, and probably other things less connected to the moment such as prestige enhancement – otherwise known as glory.

    It was the remark about singing that caught my fancy. I sang in a choir for a couple of years as a boy soprano. We even won a minor competition at the Stratford City Hall, which is now a National Historic Site. The link below has a lovely photo.

    Unfortunately, after wracking my brains for scraps of memory, I cannot recall why I enjoyed the experience as much as I did. Choral singing does require a lot of concentration so I am inclined to believe that flow plays an important role, especially during lengthy practice sessions. The actual performance under the thrill and stress of competition takes us back to the adrenaline rush.

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