#3: culture, art and science

by Lee Boot

(This article continues from a previous one, A Baltimore Education, posted on March 9th. In that article, I described how my early experiences teaching school helped me understand that the world outside of school—family, community and culture, has an enormous effect on what goes on inside school.)

As an artist/educator, it seemed relevant to learn about how the human mind and brain process information and respond to stimuli. In the classroom, I shared what I was learning with my students—figuring they might be interested. They were. One thing led to another and pretty soon I was teaching myself to write grant applications to the National Institutes of Health to fund media to teach teenagers about their brains. Needless to say, my Masters of Fine Arts in painting didn’t really prepare me for this so somehow I convinced a team of scientists to help me. My goal was to persuade the NIH to give me a large sum of money to make films that could help young people understand what their brains were capable of, and how they could use them to build the lives they wanted. Intuitively, I knew this could work, but my argument needed to be based in scientific literature. My science colleagues told me that I needed to be able to argue that if young people were aware of the capabilities of their brains, the information would measurably affect them in ways likely to lead to constructive behaviors change. In particular, it would be good if they used fewer illegal drugs. Hearing this stopped me in my tracks.. Policymakers and scientists working in public health may see “behavior change” as the Holy Grail of preventative medicine, but as an artist, it made me very nervous. Was this something we would want to do? Isn’t trying to change behaviors just manipulating people? My goal had simply been to give people information in beautiful ways whereas this new objective sounded like the first step toward propaganda and fascism.

I put my decision on hold and at the urging of colleagues, turned to the social psychology literature to better understand why people do what they do. It showed that reasons range from convenience to existential anxiety, but much of what I read cited one particular body of work from the 60’s and 70’s by psychologist Albert Bandura. His Social Learning Theory suggested that peoples’ intentions and actions are based on their beliefs and attitudes, and those are formed by a kind of dialog or discourse between people and their environment. Of course, for humans, the part of the environment that matters most is often other humans. “Environment” can be seen as social norms, which in large part are an expression of culture (there’s that word again). This means that we’re likely to do what the person next to us is doing, especially if we relate to that person because we have things in common, like speech, background, age, clothes, etc. Seeing others perform some normative behavior helps us believe we can do it too.

So I was beginning to see how something artists should be concerned with, culture, might have a lot more impact on our world than I had imagined, but I remained unconvinced about the new mission. I continued to explore. A book I was reading to be able to write the grant, Neurophilosophy by Patricia Churchland, was helping me see that because of the way the brain works, all works of human expression, if affective at all, actually cause real, and potentially indelible changes to the physical brains of their audiences! Who knew Van Gogh was so invasive? This even seemed one step beyond the manipulation I was originally so uneasy about.

What finally tipped the scales and allowed me to entertain the idea of an artist trying influence peoples’ behaviors was another bit of psychology—this time about the field itself. I learned that one of the biggest “contributions” (paying jobs) of modern psychology has been helping Madison Avenue sell stuff to us, especially to our kids. Practitioners in that field clearly had not hesitated to use their knowledge to manipulate. I realized that if those of us with potentially helpful content did not contribute at all to the cultural dialog, the landscape would be distorted by the best-financed messages. In other words, the playing field I now stood on the edge of was not level to begin with. I had to come to grips with the reality that social norms are not only extremely powerful, but are often bought and paid for. Balancing the commercial messages young people get with prosocial ones suddenly seemed only fair.

The NIH grant I finally submitted, however, did not read like those written by scientists. I included the kind of thinking we in the arts excel at. I argued that if I could make a film that was outside-the-box of what young people expect from educational films—one that honored their intelligence and included metaphor and ambiguity, it might initiate conversation and reflection (which scientific literature indicated was effective for shifting beliefs and attitudes). For my part, I was happy that such an approach could keep my informational film from being didactic.

I got the grant. We made the film. It screened at festivals and won an important award. As part of the grant, a study was done to measure the impact the film had on a population of five hundred teenagers. The findings showed that those who watched the film understood its message: that the brain creates its own rewards when people pursue what’s meaningful and engaging to them. Such beliefs were different than the ones a significant number of the teens held before seeing the film. Consequently, the conclusion was that film was a successful “intervention” and that the approach had potential. Perhaps most interesting were data that suggested that within the test population, the beliefs and attitudes of teens who had not seen the film, but who had contact with those who did, shifted in a similar, positive direction. The likely explanation was that indeed, by using a non-traditional approach, shaped by my experiences as an artist, the film had indeed initiated conversation. This, I thought, was culture at work.

copyright © Lee Boot, 2011