STEAM: Put the Arts in STEM

Richard Feynman, Nobel winner in Physics, loved to play the bongos and was a best-selling author.

Albert Einstein adored Mozart, played both the piano and the violin and wrote:

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music... I get most joy in life out of music.”

Max Planck, famed as the originator of quantum theory; took singing lessons, played the piano, organ, and cello. He also composed music.

It’s Not Just About the I.Q.

As I contemplated the link between creativity, the arts, and science, I read this 2008 study by Robert Root-Bernstein, Ph.D., Arts Foster Scientific Success. His research shows not only did Feynman, Einstein, and Plank play music,  almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences were actively engaged in the arts. In fact, they all fit the classical definition of a polymath, “a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning”.

These award-winning scientists are twenty-five times more likely than average scientists to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times more likely to be an artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times more likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer. Many connect their art with their scientific creativity.

The human spirit fuels art and in exchange it empowers scientific and technical progress and imbues it with insights of human potential and imagination. Not only does it provide better results, but the results are better for us. When we connect with our own humanity through the arts, we are better able to connect our work to humanity.

Most of modern education focuses on convergent thinking; memorizing answers and learning established processes to arrive at solutions. For instance, I am using convergent thinking while coding. Our professions generally do a good job of exercising convergent thinking, but the more free flowing state of divergent thinking is often under utilized. It allows us to imagine scenarios, empathize with others and fuels our creativity. Improving divergent thinking through the arts creates a more balanced brain, and allows us to engage in our work more holistically.

Creativity, confidence, problem-solving ability, and focus all increase when we practice arts of every kind. The benefits of both observing the arts or taking part in them fall into three categories:

  • Brain and body; perceivable differences in function and health

  • Interpersonal skills; being more empathetic

  • Creativity and openness

What Happens in the Brain When You Paint, Play, or Perform

Plenty of studies show the effect of music on the brain. Expanded research now shows the profound therapeutic benefits of movement, crafts, fine arts, writing, and drama. Music can calm neural activity in the brain, reducing anxiety; it may help to restore effective functioning in the immune system, partly via the actions of the amygdala and hypothalamus.

Beneficial brain changes occur when people create art and PTSD lessens when survivors journal their experiences. Participating in artwork, crocheting, crafts, poetry, and playing of musical instruments reduces the pain of cancer patients.

Movement-based creative expression, such as yoga, tai-chi, and dance, focus on nonverbal, physical forms of expression and results in significant improvements in mood and pain. Science is a long way from understanding all the diverse benefits, but the potential is breathtaking.

Each art form activates and influences specific and often separate areas of the brain. Children who significantly practiced any art showed improved focus and attention span.

At TED 2002, Mae Jemison, a doctor, dancer, and the first African American woman in space, said, "The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin… or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity."

The Arts Make Us Nicer to Each Other

During the previous twenty-five years, while we have focused on increasing our technological and scientific prowess, we may have been neglecting other vital subjects of arts and humanities. Computers and AI have already surpassed human capability in many areas, but in the uniquely human traits of empathy, compassion, and creativity we still excel.

An article on the Mindtools website discusses Daniel Pink’s, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age.  

The author states, “Pink suggests six areas vital to our success. One of which is empathy; the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position, to imagine what they are feeling, to understand what makes people tick, to create relationships and to be caring of others: all of which is very difficult to outsource or automate, and yet is increasingly important to business.”

Believe it or not, brain scans were done on 28 volunteers as they simply looked at works of art. The results showed a significant rise in dopamine, the feel-good chemical associated with states of intense pleasure and love. The brain also releases this hormone when we are in close connection with each other.

This process is a critical driver in the development of empathy, as I discussed in a previous article, Empathy in Engineering:

“We are social animals that thrive in dynamic and communicative environments. By leveraging our innate human strengths, we can build better teams, deliver better results, and have more fun doing it.”

Increased Creativity

I define creativity as the formation of something new. It may be intangible (an idea, scientific theory, composition, or a joke) or a physical object (software, book, painting, or an invention).

While IQ alone does not guarantee creativity, divergent thinking is essential. Interestingly, it is also a significant component of the personality trait known as Openness on the Big Five personality test the best accepted and most used model of personality in academic psychology.

Openness includes appreciating beauty in art and nature, being inquisitive about many things, using imagination freely, and being interested in unusual people and things. These traits allow us to make remote associations between ideas and increase cognitive flexibility to generate original solutions.

Most of us remain at a point on a spectrum between subjectivity and purely objective reason. Art helps us move up or down between our senses and pure logic, from the usual to the unfamiliar. If you rarely dance or you have never tried painting - why not? New experiences are integral in forging new neural connections.

In 1956, IBM was one of the earliest companies to recognize the value of including a broad range of creative minds,  a practice which the most innovative businesses are adopting today.

Thomas J. Watson, Jr., CEO of IBM, declared that “good design is good business”. He hired Eliot Noyes, a respected architect, and curator of industrial design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Noyes’ goal was to ensure that everything about the company was intentionally conceived as a product of the imagination, as a work of art. He brought in a wide variety of artists, designers, and architects to contribute to a broad range of creative expressions.

There is an increasing trend to become compartmentalized or siloed in the technical aspects of our work and forget new vision and ideas that talented creative minds introduce.

Causation or Correlation?

Scientists are always warned to be cautious when attributing results to specific factors. Are people more intelligent because they had music training when they were children or because they had parents who could both afford lessons and the time to drive kids to lessons?

Participants in creative arts have higher degrees of openness which correlate with more dopamine-receptors. Are they creative because they are open to new experiences or because they genetically just have more feel-good hormones?

There are more questions to answer, but evidence shows good things happen when we all create, even if we aren’t all going to win a Nobel prize.

I know I am more productive, calm, and happy when I take time for making music and enjoying art in all its proliferation.

“I have to study politics and war so that my sons can study mathematics, commerce and agriculture, so their sons can study poetry, painting and music.” ~ John Quincy Adams

References & Resources:

The DANA Foundation

Icons of Design