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.

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