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A Neurological Defence for the Humanities: Better Thinking, Bigger Ideas and Art

It is widely noted that Einstein came up with some of his best scientific ideas during his violin breaks, which he believed connected different parts of his brain in new ways. It’s the thinking process which Einstein coined as “combinatory play”. This is the notion that creativity is combinational: humans amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, etc, and then combine and recombine into something new. From this mental pool of resources beckons the infrastructure of what we call our own original ideas.

Maria Popova of Brain Pickings has written greatly on the subject of combinatory play or ‘networked knowledge’, stating “…In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to able to connect countless dots, to cross pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.” Whether it be painters refreshing their perspective through mechanical engineering, mathematicians looking to the discipline of philosophy, or technologists looking to the work of science fiction writers, the many branches of education are far more connected than one may have initially perceived.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York has the educational program Learning Through Art (LTA) which works on the premise that the skills generated from analysing and interpreting art can be transferred to understanding of written texts. A study based on the effectiveness of LTA found that students who participated in the program performed better in literacy and critical thinking skills than those students who did not participate. The main six categories that reflected this were: extended focus, hypothesising, providing multiple interpretations, schema building, giving evidence and thorough description. Furthermore, the study noted that students that qualified as “low-performing” showed a marked improvement in the aforementioned categories, as well as demonstrating boosted confidence towards school after the LTA sessions.

In Australia at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, a similar academic programs session runs for various disciplines, including music composition, special needs dentistry, commerce, science and engineering. Special needs dentistry and art aren’t two disciplines that one would necessarily pair together, but the students from a recent academic programs session found it rather useful.

The students were required to analyse various anatomical works in the gallery. The first analytical component was a subjective analysis, the second component an objective analysis. The students were largely responsive and delivered interesting findings to the groups. What such analyses prompted was a more psychological understanding of the figures in paintings. Furthermore, these paintings represent ideas about human life spirituality, ethics and reasons. The ideas that comes from these interpretations and analyses is then an addition to their current scientific knowledge, thus combinational. The students have the tools to look past their patients as merely patients and humanise their approach.

One student commented, “It is interesting to see what we have a perceived idea of and to identify different perspectives…if you see more people with special needs, you can differentiate between each patient, meaning that you see each patient as a human being, coming from different physical and mental backgrounds and situations.”

In a study by Burton et al, they suggest that experiences, including those in the arts, can advance general education, particularly through the development of higher order thinking skills. They state, “human minds actively create connections and associations across a broad front of stimuli — or across intelligences.” Similarly Stafford agrees with connectionist models in cognitive science that the mind works in combinatorial ways. She proposes that abstract ideas and consciousness itself are generated in the mind through a process of collaging, or juxtaposing of images, experiences and ideas. Here Stafford uses the term “collage” to describe how the mind works, and emphasises the connection between art imagery and mental processes.

However in most curricula there tends to be a push towards the sciences rather than a unified approach between the humanities and sciences. This push has occurred so much so, that enrollments in humanities have drastically declined. A Harvard University report showed that enrollments in the humanities were at just 7% in 2012. (Call me biased, but those numbers are truly disappointing). This separatist approach has created a rift between the two disciplines, mimicking, perhaps, the physical understanding of the human brain: the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere is traditionally known to be the rational side, the logical side — the numbers and words side. The Right side is the emotional and creative side — the arty side. However contemporary psychological research shows that while some minds may favour one side to the other, the two sides of the brain actually do work in a much more unified way.

In fact, research by Kara D. Fedemeier, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, shows that both hemispheres of our brain work together more than we think — the idea of being predominately “left brained” or “right brained” may need a little rethinking. In an interview about her research Fedemeier explained that, for example, abilities in maths skills comes from both sides of the brain working together, not merely the left side, which is known to tbe the logical, rational side. “…Damage to either hemisphere can cause difficulties with math. A left hemisphere advantage for math is mostly seen for tasks like counting and reciting multiplication tables, which rely heavily on memorized verbal information (thus, not exactly what we think of as “logical”!). And there are right hemisphere advantages on some math-related tasks as well, especially estimating the quantity of a set of objects. This kind of pattern, in which both hemispheres of the brain make critical contributions, holds for most types of cognitive skills. It takes two hemispheres to be logical – or to be creative.”

Even when it comes to language, both hemispheres are integral to processing and understanding. Fedemeier’s research shows that both sides of the brain rely on each other. “My laboratory studies the hemispheres’ ability to comprehend (rather than produce) language, and we, like others, have shown that both hemispheres can figure out the meaning of words and sentences – and that they have differing strengths and weaknesses when it comes to comprehending. So, like other complex skills, the ability to understand what we read or what someone is saying to us requires both hemispheres, working together and separately.”

A study on union of the left and right hemisphere showed that people who had impairments to their right side (as opposed to left side), often spoke with a flattened intonation and those who had impairments to their left side found it difficult to understand the emotional tone of speech by others. What the study showed, therefore, was that the right side of the brain holds some very important functions involving linguistic expression and understanding but it is also assisted by the left.

Arguably, there is a push towards a value of information and conformity over free thinking and expression. Consequently, however, this means that parts of the human mind and abilities are yet to be fully explored and integrated. It was Oscar Wilde who in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lyingproposed that it is life which imitates art, but perhaps it could a case of life learning from art, and art learning from life. Art and life, in this instance, both being interchangeable.

Thanks to the ever wonderful Maria Popova for her perpetually wonderful writing

This post was also featured on the Linkedin Education channel.

Feature image Flood G / FlickrCC



  1. Pingback: The Effect of Art in Sparking Students’ Creativity and Critical Thinking | Ubuntu

  2. Faqeeha Aleem says

    Great Insights! Art and life are so closely connected. Learning life without Art is an incomplete learning. Thank you 🙂

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