Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Casting the Conceptual Net: Cognitive Possibilities for Embracing the Social and Emotional Richness of Art Education

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Casting the Conceptual Net: Cognitive Possibilities for Embracing the Social and Emotional Richness of Art Education

Article excerpt

Because many people have dismissed artmaking as a social and emotional rather than a cognitive endeavor throughout much of its history, art has often struggled to maintain its place in education. Although proponents from within the field of art education have traditionally been most vocal about the pedagogical need for artmaking (Efland, 2002; Eisner, 2002; Hetland, Winner, Veenema & Sheridan, 2007; Parsons, 1998; Perkins, 1994; Wilson, 1998), one of the most potent arguments for embracing art in the classroom can now be derived from the work of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists, who claim that social and emotional thinking contextualizes learning and makes information meaningful (Damasio, 2003; Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007; Storebeck & Clore, 2007). Such a perspective converts the supposed frivolous social and emotional characteristics of artmaking into valuable cognitive attributes. Fortunately, the cross pollination of rich theoretical and empirical yields from both the sciences and the humanities can provide a more dynamic and complete understanding of human experience than research in any one field alone. These conclusions can extend not just to our understanding of human behaviors, such as artmaking, but also to educational theory and pedagogical methods.

This article aims to explore the value of crossdisciplinary study in addressing the role of social and emotional context in cognition, specifically as it pertains to art education. This inquiry begins by explicating the need to embrace research from the biological sciences, humanities, and social sciences to inform our understanding of the relationship between culture and cognition. Second, this article will address the distinctly social human brain and the import of emotion in the social brain, particularly as it relates to educational theory. Lastly, this article concludes with a discussion of the role art plays in developing social cognition and some potential applications within education. Ultimately, I hope to demonstrate the rich thinking available to inform our understanding of the role of artmaking in education if only we cast the conceptual net wide enough.

Beyond the Brain

Many educators have taken great interest in recent neurological explorations that have yielded new insights into human cognition (Varma, McCandliss & Schwartz, 2008). With new technologies, such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), neuroscientific studies are beginning to explain some of our most confounding traits, namely empathy, altruism, and the resulting behaviors that have bewildered the competitive perspective of evolutionary theorists for years. Recently discovered in high concentrations in humans, so-called mirror neurons are the cells in the brain that neurologically mimic the emotions and actions we observe in others by firing as if we are having a similar experience (lacoboni, 2005, 2007, 2008; Ramachandran, 2000, 2004). These specialized cells offer a biological explanation for empathetic and altruistic behaviors that require individual sacrifice for group or third-party benefit (lacoboni, 2005, 2007, 2008). So dramatic are the implications of this discovery that neurologist V.S. Ramachandran (2000) predicted that, "mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments" (p. 1). Cognitive scientists Lindsay M. Oberman and Jaime A. Pineda (2007) join Ramachandran in concluding that the mirror neuron system is "specialized not only for processing animate stimuli, but specifically stimuli with social relevance" (p. 62). This data suggests that humans are particularly and biologically adapted to be social creatures.

Scientific studies such as these are invaluable for understanding how the brain processes and receives information. Neuroscience, however, is capable of telling us only part of the story. …

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