Thursday, August 30, 2012

On My Soapbox For Art

Last week I was enjoying a comfortable morning, sitting in a friend's backyard swing. We talked about knitting (she is my knitting mentor) and then we started chatting about my grand art theories and my recent blog post about measuring the physical effects of art on the brain. We are both into Waldorf Education, so I consider us very like-minded. In the midst of the conversation, my dear friend jumped in with a great pointreally the "aha" momentwhen she said that petting a cat lowers blood pressure, which is measurable. My point exactly. No major scientific breakthrough really ought to be possible to measure the impact of art on the brain (and/or the body).

So back to my previous blog post: This Is Your Brain...On Art, I think the connection to be made is this: given that Happiness and Compassion studies are happening right now, an important task would be a long-term study about how interacting with art has a measurable impact on the brain and could possibly counter-balance the effects of digital consumption.

Stanford has The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Since the fear and measurable probability is that brains are being changed by digital consumption, for example: are violent video games making kids more violent? With the brain as the last frontier, what scientists should consider is what makes a healthy brain. Measuring the brain centers that link to compassion and altruism, one has to wonder where art interactions fit. 

I think there is a strong connection between "beauty" and compassion and altruism. Of course, I can only discuss this anecdotally, but consider the impact of nature. Studies have been done, are being done that show how important connecting with nature is to the human psyche. Much of what people connect with is the beauty. Is there a value in beauty? 

Now let's consider the Puritans, whose impact can still be felt when it comes to art. Is it possible to discuss the intersection of a Puritan ethic in art rippling toward a wave that crashes against joy, beauty, digital consumption and brain health? (That is probably a dissertation waiting to be written.)

As a summation of the tumultuous thoughts swirling in my brain, here's what I think we need: a national conversation about the "value" of art and the human mind's need for it (What makes us human? Our ability to make symbols?) This is a conversation that needs to happen now, to figure out how to balance the brain changes that are happening from digital consumption.

Phew...I know it's just a blog post, but finally I get to have my own soap box. My call to arms: WE NEED ART!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

This Is Your Brain...On Art

Folks, I am reporting at the scene of a head-on collision. Art, life and motherhood lay before me in a gnarled messy mass. I went to get new tires this week and thought I would have a relaxing hour of knitting—my newish favorite activity that provides me with zen relaxation and funky home-made stuff (think: pillow covers, kid purses and scarves)—instead my eye was drawn to the magazines (listen for the crescendo in the music) particularly the latest issue of Newsweek featuring a cover article by Tony Dokoupil, “Is the Web Driving Us Mad? The new research into the Net’s negative effects.” 

Ahhhhhhhh, there’s the crash...I’m a mom and I just bought an iphone, HELP! 
It’s a fascinating article, with lots of information about the now-measurable—hitherto unknown previously, except through behavioral studies—changes in brain matter from the use of digital media that can now be recorded through brain scans. of my colleagues that I bumped into by the copy machine—when I was at my office at ERAU (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) to finish grading summer school papers—made a comment about how students’ brains really are changing because of technology. Now she’s vindicated. We really are becoming the Borg. (Pretty crazy to think a Star Trek concept is being discussed in Newsweek magazine regarding real life.)
And what does that mean for me as a mom? I already have the digital media faucet on a drip, drip, drip for my daugther: our family does not have TV; we only watch movies once a week on Friday or Saturday nights (and once in awhile on Saturdays when I have a writing deadline—shh don’t tell anyone); I only permit her two 15 minute increments a day for playing with her kid computer that she got from her auntie; and she goes to a Waldorf charter school where media consumption is frowned on. But, I did just buy an iphone and she keeps asking what games I got for her to play. HELP!
So here’s more of the collision: besides thinking about technology in regards to education, which is not going away (I teach writing and ERAU has just added a new electronic portfolio program for students, I will be using it this fall); I am also an artist, a former gallery owner and frankly, someone who can’t live without making and viewing art. 
The Humanities/Communications departmental homework I am doing right now involves crafting my version of a seven-year plan that has as it’s focal point a return to art-centric coursework (yes, I know ERAU is a technology-focused institution.) But, Occasional Paper Number Ten entitled Shakespeare For Analysts: Literature And Intelligence from the Joint Military Intelligence College has been a fascinating read (a little something from my department chair) as has a 2009 article by Angelika Festa in Human Architecture entitled “Teaching Critical Thinking to Freshman Writers by Engaging Contemporary Artists’ Work,” which was sent out through a department-wide email. 
Something is happening...humanity can not live on technology alone. From Dokoupil’s Newsweek piece, the below quote really articulates this for me.
Recently it became possible to watch this kind of Web use rewire the brain. In 2008 Gary Small, the head of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center, was the first to document changes in the brain as a result of even moderate Internet use. He rounded up 24 people, half of them experienced Web users, half of them newbies, and he passed them each through a brain scanner. The difference was striking, with the Web users displaying fundamentally altered prefrontal cortexes. But the real surprise was what happened next. The novices went away for a week, and were asked to spend a total of five hours online and then return for another scan. “The naive subjects had already rewired their brains,” he later wrote, musing darkly about what might happen when we spend more time online.
So what’s the rest of the smash up? Art and art education—for everyone—needs to make a comeback. What researchers need to start measuring and studying through brain scans is how the interaction with art—the making of it and viewing of it—impacts the brain. Of course, there are some studies out there about the importance of “art education” in the elementary grades and maybe even studies at the post-secondary level—now there’s a dissertation to pursue. But, what most of us in Humanities departments (and English and art teachers at every grade level) across the country already know intrinsically is that creativity and all it’s byproducts—literature, poetry, painting, performance, photography, drawing, etc., etc., etc—are vital for developing and maintaining a healthy mind (i.e. a person).
So how about a few brain scans for a potential public service announcement: This Is Your Brain...On Art.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Everything's Changed

My father died two weeks ago and one of my dearest friends from high school—who still lives where we grew up—gave me as a gift, Paul Simon's album Surprise. I listened to it on the drive home after my stay in California (for the memorial service). The whole album is great and most every song spoke to me. I haven't really heard new music is such a long time. I felt lucky for the gift and amazingly there was a song about a father's love. And another song with the line: "Nothing is different, but everything’s changed," which sums up my life right now.

Anyway, this morning I slept late. I am not quite settled into what will be my new writing and teaching routine. Frankly, I still feel tired, so I am trying to be gentle with myself. When the alarm went off at 5:41am, I ignored it and figured since my husband is working the late shift this week, he could take our daughter to school today. On a late day it so helpful to have him drive her since I am getting my daughter ready to go (and still running around in my pjs) while he is leisurely getting himself need to explain further this rather familiar scenario for moms everywhere.

After everyone left I found myself still slightly agitated by the inefficiency of six year olds and the stubbornness of husbands.

[We pause for an interruption: the Husband has radio is on and out come my ignoraphones (BOSE acoustic noise canceling headphones) better than a door when I am trying write. Now we return to our previous programing...]

With everyone out of the house, I was alone thinking of what I needed to do. My usual habit when I am bugged or mad is to get online and surf around the trash magazines: People and US, but then I remembered the Paul Simon line from the album: "Nothing is different, but everything’s changed." I decided to figure out which song that was from. Oh how I love the internet. The song is "Once upon a time, there was an ocean."
Once upon a time, there was an ocean
But now it’s a mountain range
Something unstoppable set into motion
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed
Sitting at my desk, I thought I would write in my journal, but it's in the car and it's cold outside. My desk is a wreck. One of my tasks is to clean it up so that I can get back to my writing life, but not today. Instead I decided that today is the day I get back to this blog, which I started for myself last year. I didn't quite follow through with writing here as I had hoped. No single reason I kept me away, except maybe fear. Somehow for me, blogging is a scary endeavor, kind of akin to streaking: you don't really know who is seeing you naked as you run past.

Getting past the fear of making art is something I definitely want to consider in this blog. While I was at my dad's house I watched the movie The Time Traveler's Wife with my stepmother. A day or two later, I had a moment where life imitates art and I spoke to myself across the years. While sitting at my dad's desk after checking my email, I was looking at his things and thinking about what was important to him. On his shelf was a book I had given him ten years ago: Art and Fear, Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.

I doubt he read it, which I will explain in a different blog post, but for me, that book is the book I need right now. "Nothing is different, but everything’s changed." I have a lot of writing I want to do and hopefully, writing this blog will help support me in my bigger projects.