Enlightened minds, illuminated research

How the AGO’s art inspires researchers at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre

Enlightened minds, illuminated research

What does scientific discourse have to do with artistic expression? For a research team at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, the answer is “everything.”

We once thought of our right and left brains as separate forces responsible for logical and creative thought, respectively. But scientific progress has shown us otherwise, as mental processes require that the whole brain works together in harmony to approach a task.

Just as the corpus callosum brings our hemispheres together as a band of nerve fibres, so too should science and art harmonize — so believes Dr. Mathieu Lupien, a Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. 

Lupien incorporates art into his professional sphere to generate creative discourse between his close-knit team of researchers. He offers a unique approach to team-building by inviting his team to take a stroll through the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Each team member takes the time to walk through and choose a piece of artwork that speaks to them. Lupien then has the team come together as a group to share their chosen piece and engage in dialogue about what inspired them.

“I get to see the world from their perspective and they get to see mine from theirs,” said Lupien in an interview with The Varsity. The process helps the researchers better understand how they see the world through different lenses.

Lupien expresses that this is an exercise in using something creative, like art, to share who we are as scientists. It gives the team a glimpse into each other’s worlds. For example, if a member really enjoys the intricate detail in a piece, we can understand that the fine details they reflect in their own work are something they value. This helps us interpret the work they do in a more meaningful way.

“Our imagination is the only way to explore the unknown,” said Lupien. “We are working in uncharted territory sometimes, so creating an environment that is conducive to open, creative thought is important for our work.”

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How can students integrate art and science into their own research methods?

Lupien describes that translating scientific works in an intelligible way is an art in itself. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can be highly complex areas, full of jargon which can be intimidating for many students interested in the field. Using creative expression is one way to translate complexities in an imaginative way.

He demonstrates this idea in his description of his research on epigenetics: the study of how the activity of our genes can change, without changing our DNA sequences. He describes the genome as six billion letters of DNA that form words that are different in nature. When they are organized into sentences, each of them tells a unique story.

In order to form specific parts of our body, such as muscle and brain tissue, we organize our genome, represented here as letters, in different ways to create distinct sentences. The folding process is guided by epigenetic events, or post-it notes, which highlight the regions of our genome that need to be read.

Perhaps we can say that art relates in the same way. Each stroke of the brush or strike of the pen creates a unique image, and the artist goes over certain areas of the painting with these tools to highlight parts of the piece. Sometimes this disrupts the image, which can create chaos. Other times, this enhances the image with clarity.

Like epigenetics, one must follow these fine lines or broad strokes to understand how the larger image, or genome, has come to be. Lupien emphasizes that fostering creative thought can open a world of possibilities for all walks of life. “Bringing these values into your everyday practice as a researcher can serve to nourish your approach to work,” he said.

Experiencing art can also serve as time for our ideas to incubate, perhaps creating a period of unconscious processing for approaching problems in research. Taking from the famous 1929 works of Graham Wallas, The Art of Thought, incubation allows us to process problems in a manner whereby no direct effort is exerted.

We can optimize the way we process pre-existing knowledge by exposing ourselves to creative mediums such as art. This may lead to new approaches in scientific work. Ultimately, generating a scientific discourse with the expression of art can bring forth creative magic that inspires research. 

“In research, there are two things of value — there is knowledge and creativity,” said Lupien.

“You need to have balance. Never shy away from engaging in creative thought. You never know where it will take you.”

Happy daydreaming

Boredom can facilitate creative thinking – let’s put that to good use

Happy daydreaming

In an episode of the Big Bang Theory, The Einstein Approximation, Sheldon Cooper, a leading physicist, is stumped on a graphene problem — a problem that he tries to solve by doing routinized work. He subsequently ends up as a waiter at the Cheesecake Factory and discovers his answer by accidentally dropping a plate of peas: the peas fall in a pattern he was looking for in electron movement.

By completing tasks that were mundane in nature, Sheldon was able to creatively discover the answers to his problem. This principle is applicable to students in many cases. Take, for example, the scenario of sitting in a boring lecture and catching yourself doodling in your notebook. Maybe you were completely oblivious to what the lecturer said, and instead used the time to determine the main argument for your essay. Alternatively, maybe repetitive workouts in an underused gym led to an “a-ha” moment that would not otherwise have occurred.

Although boredom is often portrayed as a bad thing, there has been a shift in thinking about the role boredom plays in our daily lives. Currently, academics have been trying to show that boredom can heighten creativity.

A study conducted by Mann and Cadman shows that boredom leads to a phenomenon they call the ‘daydreaming effect.’ When we are bored or not challenged by our work, we tend to gravitate to activities that fuel “inner thoughts…or could involve thinking about unrelated problems or ideas the consideration of which is more appealing than the boring task at hand.”

To support their hypothesis, Mann and Cadman conducted a series of experiments of groups engaging in boring tasks. The first group was given a humdrum task of copying numbers from a phone book, and to control for external factors, another group was not assigned this task. To measure creativity after being given their tasks, both groups were tested on their ability to think of different uses of a plastic cup, which tapped into their divergent thinking.

[pullquote-features]When we are bored or not challenged by our work, we tend to gravitate to activities that fuel “inner thoughts…or could involve thinking about unrelated problems or ideas the consideration of which is more appealing than the boring task at hand.”[/pullquote-features]

In another experiment, Mann and Cadman gathered three groups: a control group, the group that copied numbers from a phone book, and a third group that had a task of just reading the numbers (intended to be the dullest task out of the three). The same creative activity was given to the groups to perform, and Mann and Cadman discovered that the number-reciting group, despite performing the most monotonous task, were in fact the most creative.

The researchers suggest that this occurs because boredom creates more room to daydream during the task which means that an individual is more likely to be creative after the activity. Essentially, boredom “…can induce challenge seeking behaviour, and therein lies the paradox that boredom, associated by many with lethargy, can actually be energising, inspiring a search for ‘change and variety.” This may be surprising to those who consider boredom as a primarily negative aspect of daily life.

As another example, take the 3M engineer Arthur Fry. Fry attended a meeting conducted by Sheldon Silver, who was trying to come up with adhesives that would hold paper together; yet after several tries, they could not come up with a reliable solution. This soon changed when Mr. Fry, while sitting in on a monotonous sermon, intended to mark the pages of the songs within the hymn books, but the papers would not stay in place due to the weak glue that held them together.

Out of sheer boredom, Mr. Fry devised a creative the solution to the adhesive problem experienced at 3M: add the weak glue to pieces of paper, thereby creating what we now know as Post-it notes. With this considered, boredom can lead to innovation in unexpected ways.

Moreover, the link between boredom and creativity has been demonstrated to be neurological. Research conducted by Mark Beeman and John Kounios shows that creativity originates in the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG), which displays heightened activity during our creative moments by pulling together abstractedly related information. This is why boredom helps: it isn’t until we are bored that we start to daydream, and draw on the distantly related information that we process in the aSTG. Jonathan Schooler, a prominent psychologist, also discovered that students “who daydream more score higher on various tests of creativity.”

[pullquote-features]Boredom can lead to innovation in unexpected ways.[/pullquote-features]

Altogether, the research suggests that, as students and as employees, it is wise to harness the benefits of boredom. It may well be that we can devise potential solutions to difficult problems at the most unexpected times. Boredom can help students and employees alike become creative thinkers, and in fact, being narrowly focused on the task at hand can impede creativity by engrossing our mind in the wrong solution.

When you need to write an essay, solve a math problem, or create a new product at work, consider allotting your time to drab activities such as cleaning, attending meetings, photocopying, or typing reports. Completing ‘boring’ tasks before or in conjunction with problem-solving sessions can help stimulate your imagination, and may be the key to your success.

Alexa Lopreiato is a Master’s student in Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto.