‘This is Your Brain on Art’: Exploring Converse’s Certificate in Arts and Cognition
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‘This is Your Brain on Art’: Exploring Converse’s Certificate in Arts and Cognition

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A new certificate at Converse explores the fascinating link between the brain and how we learn, how we solve problems, and even how we react to art and music. The Certificate in Arts and Cognition allows students the opportunity to participate in cutting edge neuroscience and cognition research utilizing Converse’s on-campus electroencephalogram (EEG) laboratory. Apps like Soundhound, Snapchat and Shazam, were developed based on research in cognitive neuroscience, an expanding and cutting-edge field.

“I think the certificate found me more so than I found it!”

Sara Blevins ’19 was intrigued by the program and began volunteering with Dr. Don Scott, one of the program directors and the generous donor of Converse’s EEG lab. Sara quickly realized the Arts & Cognition certificate was a perfect complement to her Art Therapy major. Sara said, “I think the certificate found me more so than I found it!”

She began working with both program directors, Dr. Scott and Dr. David Berry, Professor of Musicology and Composition, on a research project which would come to be known as “This is Your Brain on Art.”

The project involved electroencephalograph (EEG) measures of brain activity while people looked at various works of art. Their direction of gaze was measured with an eye tracker. The researchers looked for “brain events” – signifying that something was being comprehended by the brain – and then reviewed the gaze measurements to see where the subject was looking.

“We found that people tend to either focus on details or scan the entire picture,” Dr. Scott said. “We also found that some paintings occupied the rear part of the brain (the parietal lobe) while others occupied the entire brain, front, back, left- and right -side.”

Katherine Bobbett ’20, a double major in Music and Psychology, joined the project midway as a research assistant.

“Dr. Scott started my work with a few training sessions to ensure I understood the premise of the study, how to work the programs, and how to work with the participants,” Katherine said. “I was in charge of running the programs pertaining to the eye tracking and art, while Dr. Scott ran the EEG programs.”

This past spring, Dr. Scott and Sara presented this research in Jacksonville, Florida during the Southeastern Psychological Association (SEPA) conference. Sara presented the art aspect while Dr. Scott discussed the interpretation by the brain.

“We nearly had a “standing-room-only” crowd – I think there was an empty seat or two – and the people seemed to enjoy what we had to say,” Dr. Scott said. “We also had research assistance from the Art Department faculty, including Ruth Beals, Andrew Blanchard and Susanne Gunter.”

“We nearly had a “standing-room-only” crowd.”

Sara had the opportunity to attend the SEPA conference during her junior year with Dr. Scott and Dr. Berry, so she knew what to expect. But that didn’t completely ease her nerves about presenting to such an important audience. “I was pretty nervous about going up and presenting our data, but it turned out really well in the end,” Sara said. “Numerous people came up to us afterword to ask more specific questions about our research. It was a great learning experience and I am very thankful to Dr. Scott for the opportunity to do this research, and for letting me be the ‘guinea pig’ as the first student in the Arts & Cognition certificate program.”

Dr. Berry raved about both Sara and Dr. Scott’s work on the project, and their impact on the Arts and Cognition certificate. “Dr. Scott’s lab has produced a grant and several conference presentations for our students and us,” Dr. Berry said.

Dr. Berry was honored to work with Sara, the first student to earn the Arts and Cognition Certificate. “I participated as a subject in her fascinating study while shepherding her through the certificate process with Dr. Scott,” Dr. Berry said. “I was also glad to learn that I emit brain waves.”