Why drawing isn’t just an art

There's a growing understanding that drawing is much more than an art form: it's a powerful tool for learning.

  • We often think of drawing as something that takes innate talent, but this kind of thinking stems from our misclassification of drawing as, primarily, an art form rather than a tool for learning.
  • Researchers, teachers, and artists are starting to see how drawing can positively impact a wide variety of skills and disciplines.
  • Drawing is not an innate gift; rather, it can be taught and developed. Doing so helps people to perceive the world more accurately, remember facts better, and understand their world from a new perspective.

Most of us have spent some time drawing before, at the very least because of compulsory art classes. It's also likely that you've scribbled curlicues in the margins of your notes during some particularly boring lecture about how the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell or how to graph linear equations.

But at some point, most of us stop drawing. There are people who don't, obviously, and thank god for that: a world without designers and artists would be a very shabby one indeed. But the vast majority of adults quit doodling when they quit having to take notes, and the closest they get to making something visually creative is applying a wacky font in a PowerPoint presentation.

But some argue that so many adults have abandoned drawing is because we've miscategorized it and given it a very narrow definition. In his book, Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice, Professor D.B. Dowd argues that "We have misfiled the significance of drawing because we see it as a professional skill instead of a personal capacity. This essential confusion has stunted our understanding of drawing and kept it from being seen as a tool for learning above all else."

Dowd argues that we mistakenly think of "good" drawings as those which work as recreations of the real world, as realistic illusions. Rather, drawing should be recategorized as a symbolic tool. In an interview with Print Magazine, Dowd said:

Drawing is an ancient human activity, practiced by all persons. How do I get to the airport? Pretend your phone is dead, so forget GPS. Anyone trying to answer that question is likely to say, "Here, let me show you…" and grab a pencil and an envelope to scribble on. That's drawing! We use it all the time. Explain the rules of hockey. Describe geology. Help me understand "The Mason-Dixon Line." These things have to be manifested visually.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The cortical homunculus has body proportions based on how many nerve endings there are in the relevant body part. Notice how large (and therefore how sensitive) the hands are; this is because humans are built to handle subtle tools, like pens and pencils.

Human beings have been drawing for 73,000 years. It's an inextricable part of what it means to be human. We don't have the strength of chimpanzees because we've given up brute strength to manipulate subtle instruments, like hammers, spears, and — later — pens and pencils. The human hand is an extremely dense network of nerve endings; the somatosensory homunculus (a sculpture of a human being where the body proportions correspond to how sensitive the associated nerve networks are) demonstrates this well. In many ways, human beings are built to draw.

In fact, doodling has been shown to affect how the brain runs and processes information in a significant way. Some researchers argue that doodling activates the brain's so-called default circuit — essentially, the areas of the brain responsible for maintaining a baseline level of activity in the absence of other stimuli. Because of this, some believe that doodling during a boring lecture can help students pay attention.

Evidence has shown that doodling does actually improve memory. In one study, participants were asked to listen to a list of names while either doodling or sitting still. Those who doodled remembered 29 percent more of the names than those who did not.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Darwin's sketches of finches were crucial to illustrate his theory of evolution

It's not just absent-minded, abstract doodling that helps the brain either; drawing concepts and physical objects forces your brain to engage with a subject in new and different ways, enhancing your understanding. For example, some researchers tested study participants' ability to recall a list of words based on whether they had copied the word by hand or drawn the concept — like writing the word "apple" versus drawing one. The drawers often were able to recall twice as many words.

There's also evidence that drawing talent is based on how accurately someone perceives the world. The human visual system tends to misjudge size, shape, color, and angles but artists perceive these qualities more accurately than non-artists. Cultivating drawing talent can become an essential tool to improve people's observational skills in fields where the visual is important.

In biology, for example, describing and categorizing the shape and form of living things is critical. Prior to the invention of the photograph, biologists were trained draftsmen; they had to be in order to show the world the details of a new species. Now, some biology professors are reintroducing physical drawing in their biology courses. The reasoning is that actively deciding to draw helps people see the world better.

Rather than think of drawing as a talent that some creative people are gifted in, we should consider it as a tool for seeing and understanding the world better — one that just so happens to double as an art form. Both absent-minded doodling and copying from life have been shown to positively affect your memory and visual perception, so raise hell the next time your school board slashes the art department's budget.



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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
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