NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Neuromyths and the Artistic Mind

By Dr David Pearson — Even before the COVID-19 crisis gripped the globe the creative arts were facing serious challenges. In the UK there was widespread dismay at the Augar report proposal that university tuition fees could be linked to graduate income, a move that would massively disadvantage arts and humanities courses [1].

A recent article in NiTRO by Lizzie Muller discusses the erosion of arts funding in Australia and an increased tendency to portray the arts as a superfluous, luxury item [2]. As the world faces the possibility of a Great Depression to rival the 1920s this diminishment of the importance of the arts is likely only to intensify.

There is a tendency for policy makers to view the creative arts as something to be indulged during the good times, but trivial and expendable during the bad. Such decision making can seem irrational in the face of the considerable evidence demonstrating the economic, social and well-being benefits of a thriving cultural sector. In psychology the concept of cognitive bias is used to explain how decisions and judgments can be shaped by systematic errors in thinking [3]. Such biases arise from the application of heuristics, prior expectations, and processes of stereotyping. One powerful and well-established stereotype, for example, is the view that science and art represent fundamentally different modes of thinking [4].

This view is most strongly expressed in the theory of hemispheric dominance, which posits scientific rationality and artistic creativity are literally physically located in different hemispheres of the brain. The artistic mind is viewed as more ‘right-brained’ and the scientific mind more ‘left-brained’. The popularity of books such as Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, published in its 4th edition in 2012 [5], has led the theory to become widely known in the arts, and it continues to feature prominently on many arts websites and blogs. An international survey of 932 teachers working across Europe and China found the majority agreed with the concept of hemispheric dominance, with agreement reaching as high as 91% in the UK sample [6].

Unfortunately, hemispheric dominance is a good example of what the UK’s OECD term a ‘neuromyth’; a misconception resulting from a misunderstanding or misreading of brain research [7]. While there is certainly a degree of specialization of processes between brain hemispheres (most notably in terms of language production and comprehension being located in the left hemisphere), there is no evidence this relates to either systematic differences in hemispheric dominance between individuals, or that we can actively train ourselves to use one hemisphere more than another [8, 9].

If people nonetheless find benefit from supposedly ‘right-brain’ practices, though, does it really matter if the underlying science is invalid? One danger is that it legitimises a false dichotomy that positions the artistic mind as diametrically opposed to scientific modes of thinking. Such a position feeds a bias that the arts are at best irrelevant and at worse antagonistic towards efforts to promote innovation and development in science and technology. An alternative perspective instead views scientific and artistic creativity as manifestations of the same underlying cognitive systems [10]. It follows from this that arts-based practice can help to significantly enhance and develop scientific thinking, and vice versa [11, 12, 13].

One prominent promoter of the methodological connections between the sciences and the arts is the biologist Robert Roots-Bernstein. In a 2018 essay in Science he praised a U.S. NASEM report for recommending that humanities, arts, craft and design practices be integrated with STEMM teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate level, but also noted that “Integration is not a goal in and of itself, but rather a skill that needs to be developed in order to respond to the connectedness of the real world” [14].

It’s important to recognise that one factor shaping how others view the creative arts is how the creative arts view themselves. This is not to belie that there can be real differences between effective artistic and scientific practice, or that individuals differ in their aptitudes for different types of vocation. However. arguing for any distinctiveness of the artistic mind in relation to a neuromyth like hemispheric dominance really benefits no-one, and instead actively hinders any genuine understanding of the factors that serve and promote human creativity.

References

[1] Universities condemn ‘catastrophic’ plan to link fees to graduate pay. (2019, 11 June). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/jun/11/universities-condemn-catastrophic-plan-link-fees-graduate-pay-augar

[2] Muller, Lizzie (2020, March 06). Cultural leadership versus ‘business as usual’. NiTRO. https://nitro.edu.au/articles/2020/3/6/cultural-leadership-versus-business-as-usual

[3] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, 185 (4157): 1124-31.

[4] Pearson, D.G. (2016, April 21). Exploding the myth of the scientific vs the artistic mind. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/exploding-the-myth-of-the-scientific-vs-artistic-mind-57843

[5] Edwards, B. (2012). Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, 4th Edition. The Penguin Group, UK.

[6] Howard-Jones, P.A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15, 817-824.

[7] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2002). Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science. OECD Publications.

[8] Nielsen J.A., Zielinski B.A., Ferguson M.A., Lainhart J.E., & Anderson J.S. (2013) An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis with Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71275. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071275

[9] Lindell, A.K. & Kidd, E. (2011). Why Right-Brain Teaching is Half-Witted: A Critique of the Misapplication of Neuroscience to Education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 5(3), 121-127.

[10] Pearson, D.G. (2007). Mental Imagery and Creative Thought. In I. Roth (Ed), Imaginative Minds (pp. 187-212). British Academy / Oxford University Press, UK.

[11] Ainsworth, S., Prain, V., & Russell, T. (2011). Drawing to Learn in Science. Science, 333(6046), 1096-1097.

[12] Gurnon D., Voss-Andreae, J., Stanley, J. (2013) Integrating Art and Science in Undergraduate Education. PLoS Biol 11(2): e1001491. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001491

[13] Thinking through Drawing. https://www.thinkingthroughdrawing.org/

[14] Root-Bernstein, R. (2018). STEMM education should get “HACD”. Science, 361 (6397), 22-23.


David Pearson is an Associate Professor in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK. He is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a Chartered Psychologist, and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He has published widely in the fields of creativity, memory, and visuo-spatial cognition, and is co-editor of Mental Imagery in Clinical Disorders (2017, Frontiers Media). Watch his TEDx talk, Why Do We Draw?

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Editor’s introduction — Professor Ben Shneiderman is one of the leading researchers in the US. He is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Computer Science, Founding Director (1983-2000) of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory and a Member of the UM Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS) at the University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the AAAS, ACM, IEEE, and NAI,  a Member of the National Academy of Engineering and  holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Melbourne.
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