By Maggie Dugan
They filed into the room cautiously, surveying the plastic on the floors and the tables stocked with rainbow-colored rows of acrylic paint tubes, palettes, brushes, and huge blank canvasses. Several people looked back toward the door, longingly, wondering if there was a way that they could escape before the activity started. But a little group dynamic was working in our favor, making it just as embarrassing to leave as it might be to stay.
The participants, a collection of scientists from diverse disciplines and universities, had come together for a Sandpit (a.k.a Ideas Lab) and expected to hear from a few experts, talk with their informed peers, and look for literature on-line to support or condemn ideas that might emerge. They didn’t expect to be holding paint brushes or palette knives and to be thinking about how to mix colors and which brush to use. Some were curious, excited about the prospect. Others were groaning, if not audibly, at least with their facial expressions.
It doesn’t happen at every event, but when time permits, KI tries to insert a short session, maybe an hour-long, that has little or nothing to do with the science at hand, and involves some kind of tactile activity. It might be painting, sculpting, making music – once we brought ukeleles for every participant – or anything with an artistic bent. And if there’s already a design element built into the meeting objective, we try to mix it up. Once we asked a group working on images and visualization to make perfumes, and we’ve invited digital thinkers to frost and decorate cakes.
Concentrating too hard on a challenge can be exactly what inhibits new answers. There’s research about the utility of taking a break to do something else for a while and coming back to it later. We all do this – deliberately or not – when we’re feeling stuck. The question moves to the back of our minds, so to speak, and the unconscious keeps hacking away at it.
Except often the “something else” we choose to do is relatively familiar. We may change topics, but we’re still reading, thinking or talking. Or we might go for a run, get a snack, brew a cup of tea. Any of these diversions may be enough of a mental shift. But engaging in an unfamiliar task – a creative one at that – can give your brain a bigger vacation. Pick up a paintbrush for 20 minutes, put your hands to work, immerse yourself in color and composition, and chances are good you can get in the flow, even if you’re not an accomplished artist. In fact, if you’re just painting for the heck of it, with no expected outcome, unexpected outcomes can occur, often in the shape of a thought that unlocks a puzzle, or an abstract connection, a metaphor, or just an idea from left field.
Despite the inner and outer groans, most of our workshop participants will have a go at whatever art activity we might put before them. What’s most interesting is how the mood of the room changes once everybody’s started. People forget about whether they’re artistic or not, and begin to simply participate in the activity. Some beautiful pieces have been created and crafted by scientists who would never call themselves artists. People report having insights as a result of taking an artistic break. Sometimes, we even have a hard time getting people to stop so we can clean up and get back to the serious science.
Mixing art and science is nothing new. Many scientists take up a pencil to draw their thoughts. Diagrams and sketches bring life to theories and ideas. But in most cases, the thinking comes first, and an artistic rendering serves to enhance its explanation. We wonder if doing a little bit of art mid-stream, before all the ideas have emerged, can aide the process of creative science. At the least, it’s a pleasant diversion. At best, it’s an artful distraction that leads to an intriguing solution.
More about projects designed to break the barrier between art and science, about art based learning and discovering science through art-based activities. The art of scientific field notes and how data can be beautiful. How incubation, artistic or otherwise, is an important phase in the creative process. How arts training improves cognition. What happens when artists and scientists collaborate. Finding opportunities to collaborate. And just for kicks, the academic benefits of juggling.