Artsy Science: Make Time for Crayons

April 16, 2015

Artsy ScienceToday’s post is part of a collection of posts on the artistic side of science. Through both art and science, we humans try to make sense of the world around us, and the two fields have a lot more in common than you might expect.

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I don’t usually write about popular trends, but I can’t resist this one. Coloring books for adults have recently topped Amazon’s best sellers list. It’s claimed that coloring provides therapeutic benefits for highly stressed grownups, and supposedly there’s scientific evidence to support that claim.

When it comes to crayons, bigger is not always better.  Oh, who am I kidding?  Everyone loves oversized crayons!

When it comes to crayons, bigger is not always better. Oh, who am I kidding? Everyone loves oversized crayons!

I’ve traced the scientific claim to a paper in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (see links below). The paper focuses on “recovery experiences,” which are experiences that help people recover from stress (especially work-related stress), and evaluated the quality of creative activities as recovery experiences in terms of their effect on overall job performance.

You might think that the best recovery experience would be to relax and unwind. To completely disengage from the world around you. To lie back and do nothing. But that might not be the case.

According to this study, engaging in creative activities tends to result in better overall job performance than just relaxing. This is something of a paradox. Creative activities require concentration. They require the expenditure of mental resources that, logically speaking, you should conserve for work. In many cases, creative activities do not seem like “rest” in any sense of the word.

And yet, this study found that creative activities can boost your overall job performance. The authors of the paper provide several explanations for why this might be. My favorite is that having a sense of control over a work of art can help a highly stressed person regain a sense of control over other aspects of his/her life.

In the context of this study, creative activities need not be traditional art forms like painting or music. Cooking might count as a creative activity. Redecorating your office might count. Even telling jokes counts, according to the authors of this paper. Although adult coloring books are never mentioned specifically, I see no reason why they shouldn’t count as well.

Now you may be thinking all this seems fairly obvious. And it is. Try to remember that the next time you need a recovery experience and have a choice between lounging on the couch watching T.V. or grabbing some crayons and a coloring book.

So what do you do when you need a “recovery experience”?

Links

Benefiting from Creative Activity: The Positive Relationship Between Creative Activity, Recovery Experience, and Performance-Related Outcomes from The Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. You may encounter a paywall for this article, but you should at least be able to read the abstract for free.

Make Your Job Feel Less Like Work with 20% Time from Lifehacker.

Break Out Your Crayons from Stories and Soliloquies.


Artsy Science: Craters of Mercury

February 11, 2015

Artsy Science

Today’s post is part of a collection of posts on the artistic side of science. Through both art and science, we humans try to make sense of the world around us, and the two fields have a lot more in common than you might expect.

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The International Astronomy Union has the sole power to name things in outer space, and they have a lot of rules and regulations for how the naming process works. This usually results in names like HD 856019b. But for Mercury, specifically the craters of Mercury, the I.A.U.’s process is actually kind of fun.

With only a few exceptions, the craters of Mercury are all named after famous authors, artists, or musicians. This means Mercury has a Shakespeare Crater, a Hemmingway Crater, a Van Gogh Crater, and a Beethoven Crater. For you Beetles fans out there, there’s a John Lennon Crater. Edgar Allen Poe has a crater. Mozart and Monet have craters. My personal favorite is, of course, Tolkien Crater.

It’s worth noting that Mercury has more craters than any other planet in the Solar System, and we keep discovering more of them. That means we need more artists and authors and musicians, and we need them fast before we run out of names. So like Neil Gaiman says, go out and make good art. Mercury is counting on you.

Fe05 Support the Arts

P.S.: Special shout out to Spacerguy, who mentioned this fun fact in a comment yesterday.  Please check out his Star Trek themed blog by clicking here.


Artsy Science: Darwin’s Photographs

January 14, 2015

Artsy ScienceToday’s post is part of a collection of posts on the artistic side of science. Through both art and science, we humans try to make sense of the world around us, and the two fields have a lot more in common than you might expect.

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After coming up with the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin turned his mind toward another pressing topic of research: why do we blush? Why do we shrug? Why do we laugh or cry or tremble in fear? Why do we express emotions in the ways that we do, and do our animal cousins share any of these behaviors?

In 1872, Darwin published The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. As part of his research, Darwin took advantage of a relatively new art form: photography. He also included photographs in his book to demonstrate key concepts. Science and photography have been together ever since.

Caption: Photos from Darwin’s book (public domain, published before 1923).

Caption: Photos from Darwin’s book (public domain, published before 1923).

Using photography for scientific purposes was a revolutionary idea. A camera can capture a split-second moment in time, freezing all the details that happen too quickly for the human eye to observe. This would have helped Darwin identify which facial muscles make you laugh or grimace or furrow your brow. (I mean, seriously… photography had been around for decades. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?)

Of course, there’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of this book before. Apparently Darwin’s theories on emotions didn’t hold up as well as that other theory he’s famous for. As for whether or not Darwin was right to conclude that certain animals do in fact express human-like emotions, I think the answer is obvious to anyone who’s ever owned a pet.

Sources

How Darwin’s Photos of Human Emotions Changed Visual Culture from Brain Pickings.

Darwin in the World of Emotions from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Darwin’s “Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” – A book review from 1873, posted online by The Alfred Wallace Russell Page.


Artsy Science: Newton’s Waste Book

July 9, 2014

Artsy ScienceToday’s post is part of a collection of posts on the artistic side of science.  Through both art and science, we humans try to make sense of the world around us, and the two fields have a lot more in common than you might expect.

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It’s the 17th Century.  Paper costs a small fortune, and young Isaac Newton receives a valuable gift from his recently diseased stepfather: a notebook.  Only the first few pages have been used.  The rest are blank.  So what does young Isaac decide to do with this precious treasure?

The prudent choice would be to save it for something important.  Perhaps some groundbreaking discovery that would have changed the way we view the whole world.  Instead, the idiot named this notebook “the waste book” and wasted it on trivial nonsense.

Newton filled his waste book with information about art, music, alchemy, mathematics, theology, science, philosophy… pretty much anything.  The book’s contents were so random and disorderly that, following Newton’s death in 1727, the book was marked “not fit to be printed.”

But in that mess of scribbly handwriting, we can find the first hints of Newton’s genius and the profound discoveries he was about to make.  By not treating paper as something sacred, he allowed himself to play with new ideas.  Perhaps he named his notebook the waste book to remind himself that the pages were to be “wasted” even on thoughts that might at first seem silly.

Isaac Newton

So the next time you sit down with a blank piece of paper, waste it on some trivial nonsense.  You have no excuse not to.  Paper is a lot cheaper today than in Newton’s time.  And if you waste enough paper, maybe… just maybe… you’ll stumble upon an idea that will change the world.

P.S.: It may not be fit for printing, but the waste book is available to the public for free online.  Good luck reading Newton’s handwriting, though.


Artsy Science: Einstein and the Secret of the Imagination

June 25, 2014

Artsy ScienceToday’s post is the first in a collection of posts on the artistic side of science.  Through both art and science, we humans try to make sense of the world around us, and the two fields have a lot more in common than you might expect.

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For this initial post in Artsy Science, I want to share some quotes from one of the 20th Century’s most famous musicians: Albert Einstein.  You may not have known that Einstein was a dedicated violinist.  He never traveled anywhere without his most beloved instrument.  He also played the piano, and there are many apocryphal stories about him solving complex mathematical puzzles while practicing his music.  To Einstein, art and science were merely two separate branches of the same tree.

Here is what Einstein had to say about art and science:

  • Music does not influence research work, but both are nourished by the same sort of longing, and they complement each other in the release they offer.
  • I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
  • The most beautiful experience we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.

Most of Einstein’s discoveries were not made in a lab but in his own mind.  After reading about vexing mysteries uncovered by other scientists, Einstein would sit back and try to picture these mysterious phenomena from new perspectives, and then later attempt to describe in scientific terms what he had imagined.  Einstein called these “thought experiments.”

In an age when our society has become rigidly fact oriented, often intolerant of daydreamers, free spirits, and other such time wasters, we should remember Albert Einstein’s work and what it reveals about the power of the human imagination.  And maybe we should all take a few moments to pause, close our eyes, and engage in a few “thought experiments” of our own.

P.S.: If your thought experiments lead you to any important discoveries, please share them in the comments below!