Recommended Reading: Your Brain on Art

I keep my watercolors in an old wooden box. The box holds the few art supplies I own, but it mostly serves as a pedestal to a potted plant. I don’t open it much. Watercolors were something I stopped playing with years before the pandemic.

This summer I decided to read along with the Art Department’s group book choice, Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, two experts in the field of neuroaesthetics. I highly recommend it. Magsamen and Ross explain how cultivating an aesthetic mindset can improve our health and well being. They provide myriad examples of how to do so and explain the neuroscience and physiology behind the positive effects of engaging with the arts and paying attention to your aesthetic life.

But what if, like me, you are artistically insecure? You don’t know how to paint, draw, dance, or play an instrument? You don’t have time or money for art therapy or visits to museums? The good news is you can still find ways to incorporate the arts and aesthetics into your daily life and reap the benefits. Doodling, sketching, coloring, humming or singing aloud, dancing to music –  these simple acts of creativity can improve your mood, lower your blood pressure, focus your attention, and prime your mind for learning. And you don’t have to be good at any of them! Just playing around with the arts with no concern for the outcome is beneficial. Art can and should be part of all our self-care routines.

Art teachers know this. You probably know this. It might be why so many of you have stations in your libraries with art supplies and puzzles. You know how they can help students decompress. But it was a good reminder for me. Summer is slipping away. Work starts next week. I didn’t get half of my planned summer projects done. I can feel the divergent pulls on my time and attention ratcheting up. On top of that, it’s my turn to sit down and write an AISL blog post and think of something interesting to say.

Before sitting down to write this, I pulled out my watercolor set and gave myself twenty minutes to paint a photo of a sunset I took while on vacation last week. I’m a sucker for sunsets. I try to photograph them all the time and the photo never captures the beauty that I experience viewing it in person. That doesn’t stop me from trying. And I’ve tried to paint watercolor sunsets before, which is really hard to do for a beginner. Still, I sat down to play with painting, without any intention of creating something that was beautiful. It was a lovely twenty minutes. Just the mood reset I needed. Now I’m ready to blog for days!

Magsamen and Ross have me thinking about how I might create opportunities for students to cultivate an aesthetic mindset in my seventh grade media literacy class. In the past I’ve had students create podcasts or digital PSA posters warning their peers about various cognitive biases. These projects are fun, but time consuming. Like my watercolors, I put them away for want of time and motivation. I forgot how rewarding these projects can be, and that time spent working on them facilitates truly memorable learning experiences. 

In a media literacy class, I’m wondering if it’s worth making time to teach students about the importance of their aesthetic choices, both as media consumers and producers. About how neural networks form and change in response to our media consumption habits, how that can be a good or a bad thing, and how we can make choices to build networks to help us flourish. 

I’m also reflecting on the class discussions I’ve had with students about the choices other media producers make. We look at commercials, magazine covers, and movie trailers. We analyze intention, aesthetic choices, and how the producers hope those choices will impact their audiences. But when I’ve asked students to create media projects, I don’t take the same amount of time to discuss their own aesthetic choices. If I bring back the podcasts, the digital PSAs, or any other media production assignment, I want to make time to ask them about their intentions, their aesthetic choices, their hopes for how their audiences receive their messages. I want to give them time to incorporate feedback, revise, and iterate after evaluating whether the aesthetic choices they made aligned with their intentions. I want them to reflect on their creative potential as media producers and to consider the impact of their choices on themselves and the media landscape we all share. I want them to understand that Comic Sans is the font of last resort.

Can any of this be accomplished in the roughly nine times I see these students in a semester? How might the dynamic in my media literacy class change if, in addition to warning students about the consequences of consuming and producing the worst kinds of media, I am just as intentional about teaching them the benefits of consuming and producing media that promotes well-being, supports the common good, and nourishes the soul?

6 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Your Brain on Art

  1. Chris, thank you for this thoughtful and inspiring post! You made me think about so many interesting tie-ins to aspects of information literacy (visual literacy around image choice and visual note taking v aesthetics come to mind). You gave me a really fun way to noodle on the return to school, for which I double thank you!

  2. Chris, this reminds me of the post that Sara Kelley-Mudie did on the activities making visual representations of research to tap into different areas of the brain. And I think you’re getting into the heart of media literacy which is that there is a lot of assumptions around consumers of media instinctually understanding what goes into the creation of that media (and we know they have no clue!). Shifting our understanding into seeing information/media literacy education as helping students parse information so they can in turn create it, helps us understand the need for that creation, and creating time for it. Yet time is what we have the least of, which always makes me wonder about how best to advocate for this type of instruction (and I usually find that Middle School is the place most open to its inclusion). Thank you for such a thought-provoking post!

  3. Thank you for this post, Chris! I’ve been trying to do something creative on a more regular basis, and this is a great motivation.
    I also spent some time at the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy in July (highly recommended!) and focused on supporting intentional design choices (color, fonts, layout, images, etc.) when making visuals. Our teachers have students create posters/infographics on a regular basis, but it’s hard for them to balance design considerations with giving content feedback. I’m hoping some of what I do can help support students without overburdening teachers. Maybe I’ll make my next post about that!

    • Hi Sara. Thanks for recommending the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy. It looks fantastic. I would love to read a post from you about your approach to teaching students about design considerations. Crossing my fingers.

  4. This was one of our faculty summer reading options, and it was really well reviewed by teachers in our arts and Social Studies department who chose to read it! I was part of the discussion, and it centered around the importance of the arts in all subjects. If anyone else is considering it for their teachers, I have a discussion packet I’m happy to share!

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