A powerful tool for learning: Why drawing isn’t just an art

It's much more than an art form.

(GoaShape via Unsplash)
  • 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.

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.

(Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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

(Wikimedia Commons)

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.



A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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New simulations show how supermassive black holes form

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Snapshot of new simulation of supermassive black-hole formation

Image source: Sunmyon Chon/National Institutes Of Natural Sciences, Japan
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  • A new theory takes the direct-collapse theory explaining the creation of supermassive black holes around which galaxies turn ones step further.
  • The advance is made possible by a super-powerful computer, ATERUI II.
  • The new theory is the first that accounts for the likely assortment of heavy elements in early-universe gas clouds.

It seems that pretty much every galaxy we see is spinning around a supermassive black hole. When we say "supermassive," we mean BIG: Each is about 100,000 to tens of billions times the mass of our Sun. Serving as the loci around which our galaxies twirl, they're clearly important to maintaining the universal structures we see. It would be nice to know how they form. We have a pretty good idea how normally-huge-but-not-massive black holes form, but as for the supermassive larger versions, not so much. It's a supermassive missing piece of the universe puzzle.

Now, in research published in Monthly Notices of the Astronomical Society, astrophysicists at Tohoku University in Japan reveal that they may have solved the riddle, supported by new computer simulations that show how supermassive black holes come to be.

The direct collapse theories

Glowing gas and dark dust within the Large Magellanic Cloud

Image source: ESA/Hubble and NASA

The favored theory about the birth of supermassive black holes up to now has been the "direct-collapse" theory. The theory proposes a solution to a cosmic riddle: Supermassive black holes seem to have been born a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang, not nearly long enough for the standard normal black hole genesis scenario to have played out, and on such a large scale. There are two versions of the direct-collapse theory.

One version proposes that if enough gas comes together in a supermassive gravitationally bound cloud, it can eventually collapse into a black hole, which, thanks the cosmic background-radiation-free nature of the very early universe, could then quickly pull in enough matter to go supermassive in a relatively short period of time.

According to astrophysicist Shantanu Basu of Western University in London, Ontario, this would only have been possible in the first 800 million years or so of the universe. "The black holes are formed over a duration of only about 150 million years and grow rapidly during this time," Basu told Live Science in the summer of 2019. "The ones that form in the early part of the 150-million-year time window can increase their mass by a factor of 10 thousand." Basu was lead author of research published last summer in Astrophysical Journal Letters that presented computer models showing this version of direct-collapse is possible.

Another version of the theory suggests that the giant gas cloud collapses into a supermassive star first, which then collapses into a black hole, which then — presumably again thanks to the state of the early universe — sucks up enough matter to go supermassive quickly.

There's a problem with either direct-collapse theory, however, beyond its relatively narrow time window. Previous models show it working only with pristine gas clouds comprised of hydrogen and helium. Other, heavier elements — carbon and oxygen, for example — break the models, causing the giant gas cloud to break up into smaller gas clouds that eventually form separate stars, end of story. No supermassive black hole, and not even a supermassive star for the second flavor of the direct-collapse theory.

A new model

ATERUI II

Image source: NAOJ

Japan's National Astronomical Observatory has a supercomputer named "ATERUI II" that was commissioned in 2018. The Tohoku University research team, led by postdoctoral fellow Sunmyon Chon, used ATERUI II to run high-resolution, 3D, long-term simulations to verify a new version of the direct-collapse idea that makes sense even with gas clouds containing heavy elements.

Chon and his team propose that, yes, supermassive gas clouds with heavy elements do break up into smaller gas clouds that wind up forming smaller stars. However, they assert that's not the end of the story.

The scientists say that post-explosion, there remains a tremendous inward pull toward the center of the ex-cloud that drags in all those smaller stars, eventually causing them to grow into a single supermassive star, 10,000 times larger than the Sun. This is a star big enough to produce the supermassive black holes we see when it finally collapses in on itself.

"This is the first time that we have shown the formation of such a large black hole precursor in clouds enriched in heavy-elements," says Chon, adding, "We believe that the giant star thus formed will continue to grow and evolve into a giant black hole."

Modeling the behavior of an expanded number of elements within the cloud while faithfully carrying forward those models through the violent breakup of the cloud and its aftermath requires such high computational overhead that only a computer as advanced as ATERUI II could pull off.

Being able to develop a theory that takes into account, for the first time, the likely complexity of early-universe gas clouds makes the Tohoku University idea the most complete, plausible explanation of the universe's mysterious supermassive black holes. Kazuyuki Omukai, also of Tohoku University says, "Our new model is able to explain the origin of more black holes than the previous studies, and this result leads to a unified understanding of the origin of supermassive black holes."

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