What Science Can Learn from the Arts: Data, Visualization, Design

Question: What can science learn from the arts? 

Adam Bly: So in two ways I think science can learn from the arts – at least two ways. One very concretely in terms of ideas, and the other in terms of communication. The idea is being . . . let’s say a little bit more important. I think we’ve reached a point in science right now at the vanguard of science which I would consider to be theoretical physics and neuroscience; where the ideas and the questions that we’re asking have become such that the tools at our disposal in sort of traditionally scientific ways may be inadequate to achieve the kind of ideas and truths that we seek. It takes $8 billion dollar Super Colliders to move theoretical physics forward now, and that may or may not yield satiating results. We’ll find out next year. Neuroscience has been built over the last little while from the bottom up. It’s a field that is dominated by bits of research, and bits of understanding, and is deficient right now; is lacking for top down kind of masterful theories . . . big theories which certainly physics has. In both cases the study of consciousness requires that we certainly recognize that we ourselves are in the equation as we’re studying consciousness, which necessarily effects the equation. And in theoretical physics, if you believe string theory to be true – or if at least you assume . . . hypothesize and you . . . you use string theory as your dominant theory right now, you need an 11 dimensional universe. And so devising the experimental conditions, and more importantly being able to even intellectually grasp that kind of an idea which our brains as we know them and as we currently use them are incapable of fathoming. An 11 dimensional universe is simply something that we don’t know how to think about, we also don’t know how to talk about, we don’t know how to draw. So we become bounded, limited by our own inadequacies in trying to understand a universe that didn’t build itself for us. And similarly trying to understand the mind, thinking about thinking is no simple task. And so there’s an important marriage, I think, in trying to achieve real understanding of these areas of the natural world in marrying both experiments and experience. There’s a wonderful book going to be coming out this fall called “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” by a writer at Seed named Jonah Lehrer based on a work that he published in a magazine which basically looks at some major thinkers in the 20th century – from Proust, to Cezanne, to Stravinsky, to __________, to others, and looks at how they very much in their expressions of experience, in their writings, in their music, in their paintings, anticipated some of the discoveries in modern neuroscience. I think that when you look at multiple dimensional universes today, many physicists will site a 19th century book by Edwin Abbott called “Flatland” which sort of very beautifully articulated a world of two dimensions where everything . . . one big sheet of paper and all of us were just sort of sheets of paper on another sheet of paper. And based on the size of the sheets of paper and how they interacted, that would determine the hierarchies in society and how we communicated. And then at some point this two dimensional world hears about . . . talks about a third three dimensional world, and they can’t even begin to fathom what a three dimensional world would be like in some distant space land somewhere. And that kind of interplay of not being able to even grasp the idea of a three dimensional universe is quite relevant to theoretical physics and many theoretical physicists today are citing Edwin Abbott’s work in the 19th century. I think metaphor and language is critical not only to communicating – so this maybe bridges both the idea and the communication . . . It is not only critical to communicating scientific ideas outside of science to the people who fund it . . . and so there’s very, you know, practical reasons why science needs new languages, new tools, new visualizations; but also within science. Just to be able to navigate these very complex ideas, metaphor is incredibly valuable. Metaphor is sort of one of the pillars of . . . Being able to understand science is to create metaphors. Our metaphors become profoundly more rich when scientists interact with artists and engage the arts community in the kinds of ideas that they’re navigating. We’re also, as a result of the rise in super computing and the incredible powers that technology is contributing to science, being overwhelmed with data. If you think about the sheer size, the magnitude of the human genome project; or of efforts now to map the brain; or of missions in deep space, and of satellite data that’s coming back; and so on and so forth – great simulations that are being . . . They’re able to happen right now as a result of super computing, we’re able to do a lot more and get a lot more back. But we are still limited by this 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, or by this 15 inch monitor that we have at our disposal. And so somehow expressing data – communicating, visualizing, synthesizing data in ways that is functional and has real value is no simple task. And this is a world that design has a much greater aptitude with than science. And so there’s great potential for designers to greatly benefit scientists in that regard. I think also the arts has a completeness to it in the way that people perceive its relationship with truth. People see art as something, because of its subjectivity; because of its incompleteness in some respects; or fuzzier kind of qualities; because of the way it looks, because of course the aesthetics; and for other factors, we see the arts . . . some of us see the arts as a more full way of understanding love, or peace, or war – sort of very big ideas. And science is, in many respects, lacking for that kind of quality in the way it’s perceived by the general public. And so finding the ways to imbue science and not just make it pretty . . . You know it’s really not about making it prettier before it goes out, you know, to the papers and the press release; but really finding ways to express scientific ideas in more satisfying ways to our . . . to sort of satiate our needs for this romantic kind of quality that we associate with truth I think is really important. And I think that’s something that the arts is . . . are very contributing to the sciences today. I think that the only way that we really do achieve the kinds of understanding that we seek about the questions that are in front of us about the natural world today will come from the consilience of the sciences and the arts. This is something that’s been talked about for quite some time, and of course historically has been one of the great sources of innovation and prosperity in the world. And when you look at the Renaissance and you see what the sort of forces were at play influencing the Renaissance centuries ago, we find ourselves in a sort of similarly interesting . . . and suitable conditions right now, both in terms of the kinds of questions that are in front of us; in terms of we’re starting to see new things about the world because of globalization; because of our abilities to interact on the Web with more people, see more things, experience new things. There are so many different forces acting on the world right now that should be useful in spurring that kind of renaissance. And I think there’s a great desire on the part of many scientists and the part of many artists, and we feel it. I mean this is a world that we live in. This is a world that we’re certainly helping to spur. We feel an energy in the coming together of the arts and the scientists which is fresh and both practical and philosophically satisfying.


Recorded on: 10/17/07

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.





"Being able to understand science is to create metaphors," says Bly, founder of SEED magazine. "Our metaphors become profoundly more rich when scientists interact with artists and engage the arts community in the kinds of ideas that they’re navigating."

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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