School of Arts and Humanities News

Blurred Lines: Artists and Scientists Are More Alike Than Different


By Amanda Siegfried

By Amanda Siegfried

 

To read the full article, as it appears in the Fall 2017 Edition of UTDallas Magazine, please visit blurred lines.
The excerpt appearing below has been sampled to feature only School of Arts & Humanities staff and faculty who appeared in the original article.

 

 

 

 

Blurred Lines: Artists and Scientists Are More Alike Than Different

While the traditions and audiences of scientists and artists may be diverse, the creative processes they use to achieve success are more alike than different, and they are motivated by the same shared goal — to understand and describe the world around them and to communicate that understanding and insight to others. At UT Dallas, researchers often blur the lines between science and the humanities, using concepts and tools from the arts to inspire or inform scientific inquiry, and vice versa.

Dr. Alexander Fleming was a Scottish bacteriologist and an amateur painter, mostly with watercolors. He also would paint faces and figures in another medium — bacteria — carefully placing microbes of different strains in a Petri dish so that as they matured, their various colors would form a scene. Fleming’s experience with pigments and painting may well have contributed to one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the 20th century — the first modern antibiotic, penicillin. That discovery resulted when he noticed the abnormal appearance of bacteria in a dish that had been invaded by the penicillin mold while he was away on holiday.

“We see quite often in the literature that people are able to take experience in one domain and by means of analogy, use that experience in another domain,” said Dr. Magdalena Grohman, associate director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology in the School of Arts and Humanities at The University of Texas at Dallas. “That can broaden your possibility of inspiration and, later, a solution. If it weren’t for the fact that Fleming was using bacteria to paint, would he have recognized that something unusual had happened when he saw penicillin mold growing in a dish?”

Defining Creativity Across Disciplines

Dr. Magdalena Grohman

Dr. Magdalena Grohman

Since she was a high school student in her native Poland, Grohman has been interested in the psychology of creativity, creative thinking and the creative process. At UT Dallas she teaches courses on creativity, including how it is measured and defined. Students from a mix of majors take her survey class.

When asked whether creativity and inspiration are different among traditional artists versus scientists, she said the issue is complex.

What is known, she said, is that creative people across domains are good at defining a problem, as opposed to strictly solving a problem.

“In cognitive psychology it has been shown that people who spend more time on constructing the problem often come up with more novel, useful and unique solutions to the problem,” Grohman said. “In scientific inquiry, this will be trying to define the problem to solve, while in artistic domains, it may be choosing the right idea to convey.”

While some psychologists contend that creativity is domain specific — it’s different for a mathematician and a poet, for example — others say it is domain general, she said. The debate is open.

“But what we do know from the areas of cognitive psychology and personality research is that there is strong evidence that creative people across domains share one trait: They are open to experience,” she said.

This characteristic includes being imaginative, inquisitive and curious, and having the propensity to hold two mutually exclusive thoughts, Grohman said. It’s also being open to “weird associations” and recognizing atypical analogies or connections in the world around us.

Can Music Make You Smarter?

Dr. Kathryn Evans started as a mathematician before turning to music.

Dr. Kathryn Evans started as a mathematician before turning to music.

Whether it’s the physicist who plays the guitar or the sculptor who does backyard astronomy, from a psychological standpoint it’s tricky to prove that experience in one domain can make someone actually perform better in another domain.

“This kind of transfer is hard to prove,” Grohman said. “We still don’t know if that happens or not.”

Dr. Kathryn Evans is on a mission to find out.

Evans started out wanting to be a mathematician. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math and taught the subject. But she also has always had a passion for music, so she got a master’s in performance and has toured the world as a vocalist and conductor. In the 1990s, she came to UT Dallas to help restart the campus’s music and arts programs. She currently teaches vocal and choral performance in the School of Arts and Humanities and is working on developing curriculum across the arts, sciences and humanities with colleagues in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication. In the spring of 2018, she will teach a class called Music, Science and Technology, open to students in any major.

With both math and music constantly in her thoughts, Evans began wondering why certain people pursue both the arts and science, and why those in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — often are also good musicians.

For her doctoral dissertation in the ATEC program, Evans surveyed UT Dallas students about their experience studying music, performing music and in sound design, and how those experiences related to their academic performance in other areas. The student population offered a unique pool: About three-quarters of UT Dallas students major in a STEM field.

“We found there was something about studying music theory that was the No. 1 indicator of academic success,” said Evans, who earned her PhD in 2016.

Music theory involves analyzing the structure of musical pieces, including drilling down to smaller and smaller bits like individual notes, measures and phrases, which leads to a greater understanding of the whole.

“Having to break a big piece down into little pieces — and practice it over and over again — well, that’s how you learn stuff,” Evans said. “That’s how you learn biochemistry, or how to move your fingers on the violin. That’s how you learn the Krebs cycle, which is how we digest our food to get energy.

“That’s what these students said music had taught them.”

The next step for Evans will be trying to test whether experience in one domain actually improves performance in another.

“It’s not as clean as saying, ‘If you can do this, you can do that.’ This type of skills transfer is diffuse and hard to prove,” she said, echoing Grohman’s perspective. “It’s not as simple as saying, if your kid takes music theory and can identify the key of A major, then they’ll be able to figure out stochastic chemistry. It’s not that clean and simple.”

What is clear is that in both the creative and the scientific realms, it takes multiple steps — and sweat — to reach that “Aha!” moment, Grohman said. Innovators who are passionate about their pursuits will spend hour upon hour in the most boring aspects of that pursuit before reaching a final product, she said.

“Success comes only after you go through a certain process,” Evans added. “Whether it’s music or drawing or sculpture or particle physics, the process has a lot to do with breaking the subject down into smaller pieces that are manageable, until your mind puts all those pieces together in a whole that makes sense.”

The Big Picture

As UT Dallas researchers and students practice creativity and inspiration in artistic and scientific endeavors — and often both — Evans cautions that universities and educators should keep their eyes on the big picture.

“One of the takeaways from my time at UT Dallas and my research is that having experience in those two domains, what some consider very disparate areas, is really valuable,” she said. “This is why I worry about us losing one or the other as kids come into college. We have a creeping major problem, where departments keep adding requirements to the point where they essentially lock out everything else that a student could do. Some students take only one course in the arts, or maybe only one science elective, and then they work on their major. And I think that’s terrible. To experience all the other things in life that also matter, that maybe make us human, is also important.

“It’s clear that we need both/and, not either/or.”