Is Science Useful in Explaining the Arts?

I recently read a blog post called “Creativity explained…Eureka!” by Kurt Knecht. Kurt is a fantastic composer, organist, and scholar whom I know because he’s a recent graduate of our doctoral program in the UNL School of Music. In his post, Kurt reacts to a radio interview he heard with Jonah Lehrer, who’s making the rounds promoting his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. You should read Kurt’s entire post, but I think it’s fair to say that he is not impressed with Lehrer’s position on the matter. I’m also basing this on a tweet of Kurt’s from last week, in which he said “People who attempt to explain creativity seem to be the least creative.” As someone who has, well, attempted to explain creativity (in fact, a number of times here on this blog), I was thrust into some serious soul searching by that tweet!

When Kurt put up his post about creativity, he tweeted at me to ask for my thoughts about it. I didn’t hear the interview with Lehrer that Kurt listened to, and haven’t read the book Imagine (though I intend to very soon). So I can’t yet speak to Lehrer’s position specifically. But I will take up the cause of defending the value of research in the social and behavioral sciences in trying to explain creativity. What’s more, I think it can be fruitful to consider broader phenomena that are found across disciplines. Creativity in music may not be exactly the same as creativity in the visual arts, but I think there’s insight to be gained by sorting through the similarities and differences. By way of full disclosure, I’m somewhat committed to such interdisciplinary pursuits…I’m the guy who offers a summer class at UNL called “Music and Sports: Performance and Perception,” in which we consider topics like talent, practice, group dynamics, performance anxiety, and, yes, creativity.

Social and behavioral science research does not seek to advance “one size fits all” explanations for complex human phenomena. Rather, the work involves looking for trends and associations and effects that hold true much of the time. Even if a theory cannot explain 40% of all cases—say, those for whom a bath doesn’t work! (see Kurt’s post)—it doesn’t make the theory worthless to the other 60%. Any researchers worth their salt are careful not to overgeneralize or oversimplify their studies’ findings. They are, of course, free to propose theories and offer possible interpretations of their data.

Research results are best seen as one source of evidence to support a theory. And not all evidence is convincing to everyone who hears it. Perhaps one problem comes in the way that the evidence is presented. Usually when we hear about research results, it is not from the researchers themselves, but from other media members. These folks may not always handle the information accurately. Sometimes they paraphrase the research to make it more accessible to the general public which isn’t interested in wading through academic jargon. Other times, writers and broadcasters turn to research simply to bolster their own position on an issue by throwing around the authoritative phrase “Research shows….” As a result, research is often mishandled and its findings applied too broadly. One of the worst music examples of this came in the 90s with the so-called “Mozart effect.” The original study found that college undergrads (not music majors) did better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to a 10 minute Mozart piano piece, as compared to spending the same amount of time sitting in silence or listening to a relaxation tape. Yet the results in this very specific context somehow morphed into a “music makes you smarter” movement that was embraced by far too many in the field of music education.

Kurt’s post also includes a quote from his friend (and my colleague at UNL) Guy Trainin, who is a fine researcher in his own right, and an expert on reading acquisition and literacy learning. On the topic of creativity, Dr. Trainin said, “I think I might be able to measure it, but it is so discipline specific that I’m not sure it would be transferable in any way to another subject.” As this perspective suggests, I think we must be cautious in applying research results to areas outside our expertise. But I’d also contend that anyone seeking greater understanding of a topic like creativity can gain much by considering what well-conducted scientific research has found. I’m sure Dr. Trainin’s own teaching practices and operations at the reading center he co-founded are largely informed by the insights of research. And I dare say that some of the effective strategies used in reading instruction also work in music instruction. The strategies may not work with all learners, but when we’re dealing with something as complex as the human mind, it makes sense to me to start with what research says works with most.


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