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Patricia Leavy, PhD Headshot

Our Brains on Art

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I am a sociologist by training. I come from academic world, reading scholarly articles on topics of social import, but they're almost always boring, dry and quickly forgotten. Yet I can't count how many times I've gone to a movie, a theater production or read a novel and been jarred into seeing something differently, learned something new, felt deep emotions and retained the insights gained. I know from both my research and casual conversations with people in daily life that my experiences are echoed by many.

The arts can tap into issues that are otherwise out of reach and reach people in meaningful ways. This realization brought me to arts-based research (ABR). Arts-based research is an emergent paradigm whereby researchers across the disciplines adapt the tenets of the creative arts in their social research projects. Arts-based research, a term first coined by Eliot Eisner at Stanford University in the early 90s, is based on the assumption that art can teach us in ways that other forms cannot. Scholars can take interview or survey research, for instance, and represent it through art. I've written two novels based on sociological interview research. Sometimes researchers use the arts during data collection, involving research participants in the art-making process, such as drawing their response to a prompt rather than speaking.

The turn by many scholars to arts-based research is most simply explained by my opening example of comparing the experience of consuming jargon-filled and inaccessible academic articles to that of experiencing artistic works. While most people know on some level that the arts can reach and move us in unique ways, there is actually science behind this.

Beginning with the power of fiction, there is a growing body of scholarship on the relationship between neuroscience and literature, often referred to as literary neuroscience. It is actually worth noting that Silas Weir Mitchell (1824-1914), one of the founders of American neurology, was also a fiction writer who published an astonishing nineteen novels, seven poetry books, and many short stories. Many of his works of fiction were linked to patient observations made during his clinical practice and centered on topics dealing with psychological and physiological crises. One wonders if we are only now beginning to understand what Mitchell might have really been on to. Here's a snapshot of recent research.

Natalie Phillips (2012) used the fiction of Jane Austen in a study about how reading affects the brain. The preliminary results of this work have been revealing. Phillips and her colleagues found that the whole brain appears to be transformed as people engage in close readings of fiction. Moreover, there appear to be global activations across a number of different regions of the brain, including some unexpected areas such as those that are involved in movement and touch. This research helps to explain how we become immersed in novels, actually feeling as though we are within the story and that the house could burn down and we wouldn't notice. We actually place ourselves in the story. Research in this area seems to be taking off. For another example, Gregory Berns (2013) led a team of researchers in a study published in Brain Connectivity that suggests there is heightened connectivity in our brains for days after reading a novel.

Research on other art forms has similar implications. For example, Daniel J. Levitin (2007, 2009) has written extensively about the cognitive neuroscience of music. He suggests that music is distributed throughout the brain, in both hemispheres. Further, he argues that, in essence, music is hardwired into our brains and listening to certain kinds of music, like Mozart, can actually make us smarter.

There is an emerging field called neuroaesthetics that considers how our brains make sense of visual art. Nobel laureate Eric Kandel (2012) explains that visual art activates many distinct and at times conflicting emotional signals in the brain which in turn causes deep memories.

While the preceding examples focus on consuming or experiencing the arts, it is important to note that recent research on the activity of art-making has yielded similar results. For example, there is a growing relationship between art therapy and neuroscience. Many in the field now suggest that both hemispheres of the brain are involved in art making and are necessary for artistic expression. There is clinical research on drawing as well. A study by Rebecca Chamberlain and colleagues in the journal NeuroImage (2014) debunks right-brain and left-brain thinking to argue that those with visual artistic talent or who identify as visual artists have increased amounts of grey and white matter on both sides of the brain.

So whether we are consuming art or involved in art-making ourselves, art impacts us in profound ways not previously understood. There are serious implications for how we might teach, learn, conduct and share research most effectively. These are primary drivers of the arts-based research movement.

In 1963 famed sociologist Lewis A. Coser, far ahead of his time, published a book titled Sociology through Literature which he deemed "experimental." Coser believed that novelists were uniquely able to tap into and describe human experience, which could be of great value to teaching in the social sciences, but he knew others were not yet ready to follow suit. I recently read an op-ed by Gregory Currie published in the New York Times that suggested literary fiction may actually improve our moral sensibility and social intelligence.

A good novel can make us smarter and more compassionate. I think Lewis A. Coser would have enjoyed that article. Considering the scope of what we know now about how the brain works, which no doubt merely scratches the surface, it seems clear that the move to the arts in social research opens limitless possibilities.

Patricia Leavy’s books Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice and Fiction as Research Practice are widely available. Visit www.sensepublishers.com and use promo code 192837 for 25% off and automatic free shipping on her two arts-based novels Low-Fat Love and American Circumstance.