Systems. What exactly are they, how do they work, and how do they affect learning? This week’s #clmooc make revolves around systems from behavior to mechanics, and to transit. Any kind of “regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole” qualifies. As I scrolled through my Feedly links, I came across this article: How Learning Artistic Skills Alters the Brain. Being an educator who strongly believes in the connection between creativity and cognition, I made a point to flag this one for further reading. The article describes the findings of a study published in NeuroImage, a science journal dedicated to studying brain function. Leaving the article behind, I went directly to the paper to see just how studying art can transform cognitive systems even for those who do not consider themselves innately artistic.
The authors recognize that the mental systems used by artists to create differ from other modes of communication. A complicating factor is the very nature of art’s definition: there are as many motivations and techniques and genres as there are artists. The researchers limited themselves to “representational, two-dimensional visual depictions created from observation” (Schlegal, Folgelson, Li, Lu, Kohler, Riley, Tse, Meng, 2014). They also focused on three primary areas: creative cognition, visual perception, and perception-to-action.
I thought I would find the section on creative cognition interesting, and I did, but in a way that mostly validated what I had already learned or figured out. My favorite line actually made me grin, “…the many emerging findings about both artists and creative cognition more generally have shown that creativity is a complex rather than monolithic process…” (Schelgal, et al, 441). I suppose some people who aren’t artistic assumed that creativity comes naturally, and artistic expression is as easy as breathing. Not so much. One of the reasons I stress creativity and art projects in my ELA classrooms it that, in my experience, having to approach a text from an abstract point of view requires students to analyze differently. I’ve noticed in my 20+ years in the classroom that writing clarity improves after an art project, possibly because thinking as an artist forces students to articulate precisely what they mean, rather than throw words on a page and assume everyone “gets” it because of the jargon employed. That may be something worth studying further.
What really fascinated me about this study was the MRIs taken before, during,and after the exercises undertaken by the subjects. The final results suggested that the brains of those subjects who had previous art training actually reorganized neural activity. “Interestingly, the art students in our study also improved in measures of creative thinking, specifically in their ability to think divergently, model systems and processes, and use imagery” (Schegal, et al 448). The primary location in the brain affected was the pre-frontal cortex, which also controls long term goals, planning, imagining potential outcomes, behavioral planning, short term memory, and volitional action (Tanji & Hoshi, 2008). What the researchers determined was that the human brain is flexible and able to change or reorganize through training in art. In as short a time span of three months, art training can improve cognition and the ability to think creatively, and not just learn the techniques involved (Schlegal, et al 449).
So, as systems go, it appears that art, and the systems employed to create it, may, in fact, benefit all kinds of learning. The practice of line and shape may actually influence learning at a cognitive level, affording students the ability to “think outside the box” in a variety of subjects and make connections between texts, content, and “real” life. That’s pretty exciting stuff!
Schlegal, A., Alexander, P., Fogelson, S.V., Li, X., Lu, Z., Kohler, P.J., Riley, E., Tse, P.U., Meng, M. (2014, November 15). The artist emerges: Visual art learning alters neural structure and function. NeuroImage, 105 (2015), 440-451. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811914009318#. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.11.014.
Tanji, J., Hoshi, E. (2008, January 1). Role of the lateral prefontal cortex in executive behavior control. Physiological Reviews, 88 (1) 37-57. Retrieved from:http://physrev.physiology.org/content/88/1/37. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00014.2007.