Connecting Human Interaction, Neuroscience, and Art

Whittle School & Studios teachers Dr. Balakrishnan Selvakumar and Dr. Ara Brown on how human interaction, neuroscience, and art inform each other and the high school student.

Students in the Human Interaction and Neuroscience class at Whittle School & Studios explored why humans interact by developing a behavioral framework based on research literature in neurobiology that they then applied to explore a human interaction example of their choice. As part of this project, they were given an option to choose from more than 350 pieces of art from The Phillips Collection and answer two questions: Why does the chosen artwork connect with them? How does their perception of the artwork change when they apply a behavioral framework to it?

Here are podcasts of the work by three students. You can access them here on Soundcloud or via our new digital guide, the free Bloomberg Connects app in the “Teen Voices” section, where you can also access the transcripts.

Calla chooses Untitled (Hood 2) by John Edmonds because the hood in the image reminded her of her first experience with racial injustice: through a conversation she had with her cousin eight years ago about the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American male who was shot dead after being described as an unknown male in a hoodie; and through her aunt’s terrified reaction to this incident because her son, who shared physical attributes with Trayvon, could just as easily be mistaken with fatal consequences. In applying the behavioral framework to understand her experience, Calla interprets the hood as an environmental signal that triggers a reaction of fear and danger in the brain because of how the brain has learned to associate and reinforce the hood with negative contexts; she references behavioral studies to indicate the quickness and negative consequence of these reactions. She concludes by saying how a positive context, such as a positive African American cultural experience, could train the brain to learn to make positive associations and memories that may lessen the negative reactions of fear and bias and the unjust consequences therein.

JiaJia chooses the photograph, Keep Going, the eighth photo of the series Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad by Jeanine Michna-Bales, because it transports her to a moment in history when a slave escapes for freedom and, it reminded her of a quote by Frederick Douglass that talks about the uncertainty and danger of this escape. In applying the behavioral framework to this moment and quote, she views the slave’s experience in terms of how the brain and the nervous system can trigger a response of flight and fuel the body to act to escape through a powerful physiological reaction that overcomes the perception of danger that might otherwise be inhibiting; she uses the geographical location, including the thorny swamps and the light of the stars as contrasting environmental triggers of physical pain overcome by hope. She concludes by saying that applying the behavioral perspective to the photograph created a physical connection to it―it made her feel the moment in history and better understand the quote by Frederick Douglass.

Ella chooses a painting by Paul Klee, To the Right, To the Left, because the mysteriousness of the painting’s geometric images moving side to side intrigued her and made her want to know more about the artist. However, reading about the artist didn’t give her a reason for why the artwork appealed, instead it made her have conversations with friends and family about it that she enjoyed despite still not understanding the reason for the appeal. In applying the behavioral framework to this experience, she compares the artwork and the fun conversations that it engendered to the reward circuit in the brain and how it affects behavior. Specifically, she compares how the process of anticipating the reward can be more rewarding than the reward itself to how the conversations with friends and family about understanding the artwork were more enjoyable than understanding the artwork itself. She concludes by saying how this experience influences the way she perceives art and its effect on human interaction.

Based on these examples, art that speaks to a student can trigger a connection to a poignant conversation from the past, a moment in history, or a personal reflection that forms the context through which the neuroscience of racial justice or slavery or the role of reward in human interaction can be explored. How can this approach be scaled to integrate art and behavior to a greater extent in a high school course and to more students?

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