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?

From Otis Street: The Artist’s Book as a Time Capsule

Artist Beth Curren of the Otis Street Arts Project reflects on the hands-on workshop she led: The Artist’s Book as a Time Capsule.

As an artist, I believe everyone has a creative streak―it just has to be discovered. As we all gradually came to terms with the limits and extremes of life during a pandemic and political strife, it became even more important to consider ways for artists to give back to the community. Artists and arts organizations offered many ideas: print exchanges for fundraisers, online presentations and tutorials in every genre imaginable, virtual exhibits and gallery tours. On a smaller scale, I created packets for the 22 houses on our small cul-de-sac and most every home participated in the Middleton Lane Prayer Flag Project.

Making artist’s books during the online workshop

When David Mordini, our director at Otis Street Art Project, outlined The Phillips Collection’s Saturday afternoon online workshops, we realized it was possible to reach an even wider community. These sessions were an opportunity to engage people in something new, something that they had never tried before. I chose artists’ books since it is a favorite genre, combining hand skills, art skills, and writing skills. It made sense to design a workshop that called for materials that nearly everyone already had at home: pencil, ruler, 8.5 x 11 in. paper, scissors, glue, and a popsicle stick/round bladed knife for creasing the paper. With these tools, we made three structures: a Book-in-a-Page, a Petal Fold, and a Flag Book. For content, participants could use photos, stickers, crayons, magic markers, images, and text cut from magazines. I always encourage students to make two to three identical models―repetition fosters muscle memory and the mission is for the students to be able to re-create the structures on their own.

After much discussion with David, I chose the theme of a Time Capsule. The three structures would incorporate images and text; when finished, they would be put in an envelope, dated, and put aside to be reopened sometime in the future. Suggested prompts included: “How has this pandemic affected your sense of yourself? What do you hope for in the future? What do you want to remember or to remind yourself that makes this year different from all others?”

As always, there was a lot of prep for the workshop: a PowerPoint presentation; hand-outs and notes; pre-cut paper so that I could repeat the same steps over and over until the participants felt confident that they had mastered each structure. David had set up a little studio at OSAP and we had a short dress rehearsal with Emma Dreyfuss and Miguel Perez from the Phillips and that was very helpful. Over fifty people signed up for the class; that was both gratifying and a bit intimidating for my first Zoom workshop but the enthusiasm and excitement from the participants was very encouraging. There was a wide range of ages and skill levels but these basic book structures are very flexible and allow for endless variations of text and imagery.

Making artist’s books during the online workshop

The best part was when we did a show-and-tell at the end. People are full of surprises and ingenuity. The variety and ingenuity of their pieces reflected, I think, their response to making art during a crisis. Many of the children were all ready to put their masterpieces in boxes and bury them in the back yard for their future selves to find.

As for me, I was both overstimulated and exhausted: trying to connect and engage with that many people in their little boxes on the computer screen was a real challenge. But it was so, so worth it. And I think I learned a lot, too―there are steps I would modify if I taught this online again: I’d teach two structures instead of three; I’d leave more time for individual work; I might schedule in a few breaks. But those are small quibbles. It was a fabulous experience and one I hope to have the opportunity to repeat.

Artist’s books by Beth Curren: (top) My Fortunes (flag book structure); (bottom) Solar Eclipse (book-in-a-page structure)

From Otis Street: Egyptian Paddle Dolls, The Goddess Hathor, and Khener Dancers

Artist Cheryl D. Edwards of the Otis Street Arts Project reflects on the workshop she led: Revival of a Life: The Making of a Water Angel.

My workshop offered instructions and motivation to create Water Angels in relation to examining the sacredness of life using symbology. As background information and inspiration, I examined the history of the Egyptian Paddle Dolls, the mythology of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, and the Middle Kingdom Khener dancers. I thought that this would be a relevant creative exercise to allow participants to reflect on thoughts of restructure, restoration, and light as a pathway to life after COVID-19.

Artwork by Cheryl D.Edwards

Artwork by Cheryl D. Edwards

“Paddle Dolls have been interpreted variously as concubines for the dead, as children’s toys, or as figurines embodying the concept of fertility and rebirth. Paddle dolls have been recovered from secure archaeological contexts at very few other sites and only in small numbers, but they are frequently found at Asasif.”[1] I have been using the Paddle Doll as an inspiration in my work since 2018. It all started with me looking for an organic shape to use in my ongoing series, which uses water as a metaphor to instigate discussions about identity, memory, and humanity.

I am sure many of us spent hours, days, and months contemplating our lives during this pandemic. I have spent most of my time pouring these thoughts into my artwork as a way to go deeper into the work. It is necessary to understand the history of an object or person to better contextualize what one is creating in the present. Paddle Dolls were founded within the mythology of the goddess Hathor. “In the non-literate and nomadic C-Group culture of Lower Nubia, ritual and worship were not organized around a sacred text, nor were they carried out in a temple. Rather, many important rites of passage and worship were heavily associated with communal performance of dance and music. In such rituals the power of music and movement were harnessed to transport the worshipper into an ecstatic encounter with the Divine. Worshippers, engaged in nocturnal rituals for the goddess Hathor, sought this type of ecstatic encounter. It appears that the ecstatic nature of the dancing performed for the goddess and the spiritual “drunkenness” that it induced were valued in the ritual context of celebrations for Hathor: goddess of music, dance, love, and fertility.”[2]

The story is that Hathor was the daughter of the god Ra. Ra died and his daughter removed her clothing and began to dance in front of her father’s body. The story concludes that this dance revived the life of her father. Hathor was not always a benevolent goddess. She was sleep induced and was carried to the river Nile and submerged into the water. She awoke and was changed; thus, such attributes as fertility, love, dance, and music were permanently part of her new character. I explained in the workshop that we should learn from this in thinking about the life of someone that we lost during this pandemic, from COVID-19 or natural death.

It is important to understand that any life is sacred, and that sacredness should be acknowledged. The Middle Kingdom Khener dancers continued the legacy of Hathor. The dancers were Nubian women who performed at funeral ceremonies, as well as other celebrations. It was their mission to keep Hathor’s story and ritual alive. It was thought that if one could not revive a life with the ritual then they could refresh their soul in the afterlife. “Nubian women appear as Hathoric dancers from the Middle Kingdom (2000–1700 BCE) through the Roman period (30 BCE–395 ce). Representations of priestesses of Hathor sporadically, but repeatedly, included Nubian women dancers, singers, and musicians engaged in religious celebrations of the Beautiful One, the Gold, the Lady of Dance, the goddess Hathor… Beginning in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 BCE), Nubian women appear in Egyptian tomb and temple art that depicts banquet scenes where those women act as musicians and dancers.”[3] I spoke about color palettes, mixed media art history, and composition with one point perspective. After a further discussion about symbology which reference death―e.g., Egyptian tattoos and clappers, American symbols―we began creating our artwork. We began with our collective intent inspired by young African American poet Amanda Gorman:

For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough
to see it.
If only we’re brave enough
to be it.

Artwork by MaryAnn L. Miller

There were about 65 participants in the workshop and during our time spent creating we listened to music by Miles Davis and performances by Andrea Bocelli. After two and a half hours, the participants presented their work and spoke about their intent. I was amazed with what I saw! What struck me was the ways in which the artists embraced the concept and the history of the workshop and created work which undeniably spoke in their singular voice.

Clockwise from top left: Artwork by Shanti Norris, Donnette Cooper, Lisa Rosenstein, and Sharon Fishel

As our time together ended, I played the video entitled 8:46 composed and performed by Diane Monroe and many other violinists. In this work Diane Monroe is elevating the lives of many African Americans killed by police brutality and hate groups. As we all sat in our collective consciousness, I gave thanks to The Phillips Collection and the Otis Street Projects for giving me this opportunity. My hope is, as we move in our collective consciousness to restructure our society and the world, we will be filled with light.

 

[1] Ellen F. Morris, “Paddle Dolls and Performance,” 2011, Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 47, p.7

[2] Solange Ashby, “Dancing for Hathor: Nubian Women in Egyptian Cultic Life,” 2018, Dotawo: A Journal of Nubian Studies: Vol. 5

[3] Ibid.