Emotional engagement

‘It’s very important that scientists work with artists in my opinion, because science produces facts that go to the head. Art produces beautiful things that mainly go to the heart. And if you want to influence people, you can influence the head but if you want them to act you really have to go through the heart. What people care about is what they look after, so [scientists] teaming up with artists helps [them] get the science across to a much wider audience.’

This is something that a scientist I was interviewing earlier this summer said to me. Recently, I have been thinking about quite a lot about it – and whether I agree with it or not. Is scientific content reaching a wider audience through science-art? And is there really a clear divide between science influencing the head and art the heart?

Often successful science communication requires information to be extracted from a dry scientific paper and communicated through art, television, public lectures, computer games… and a whole host of different media. The end product of science is given its emotion back and people can begin to care about it. The emotion is there is science, just often it is hidden behind the end result, the emotionless ‘facts’ in a faceless paper.

I therefore fully agree that often to engage people with a subject, regardless of whether it is science or not, they have to care about it to a certain degree (i.e. they have to emotionally buy in to it). Science television shows will demonstrate how scientific content is relevant to ‘you at home’ by sending a presenter on a journey where they experience situations that the average person watching can relate to. Environmental communications that require people to take action or make a lifestyle change will use emotional images to ‘sell’ their message and get people to act. So (although I am conscious of making sweeping generalizations) in order to fully engage someone with a subject, you have to engage their emotions or, as the researcher said, their hearts.

But does art really engage people’s hearts and emotions? And to what degree does science inspired art engage people enough for them to care about the science behind it? This is something I put to Wynn Abbott, Director of the London Science Festival. “I think it’s tricky because I’m not aware of many examples whereby the emotional responses to art have been scientifically monitored,’ he explained. ‘ I’m sure there are more out there but the only recent example I can think of was a recent collaboration between the winner of BBC Radio 4’s ‘So You Want To Be A Scientists’ and Martin Kemp (Prof of History of Art, Oxford). As this experiment implies, I think it’s without doubt that art definitely affects emotions – the physiological measurements are possible here.

The more difficult question that you’d have to answer with science-art is what is creating the emotional response in the work — when art works aesthetically and conceptually. I presume what the scientist is getting [at in their quote above], is that to truly engage the public in the science of science-art is to creative an emotional response to the conceptual nature of work (the ideas) i.e. the work is not just a pretty picture. And, I’d totally agree with that.”

Patrick Stevenson-Keating is a designer with a strong interest in science. Recently, he teamed up with Super/Collider to create the world’s first handcrafted glass particle accelerator. He didn’t disagree that art does induce emotions but had hesitations about how well art can communicate information. ‘ [Art] undoubtedly does often draw an emotional response, but just as frequently has the potential to alienate the viewer’, he said. ‘Sometimes it feels as though art can be more for the expression of the artist rather than communicating discreetly to the audience.’

Patrick’s thoughts on whether there is a divide between art and science, and whether science just affects the head and art the heart, echo my own views. ‘For me, the parallels between [art and science] are striking.  Speaking from personal experience as a designer with an interest in science, in my opinion both subjects have a fundamental basis of questioning their environment.  Both have the ability to turn the seemingly mundane into the fantastical.  These are the reasons why I personally love both areas,’ he explained.

‘Science has been influenced by emotion and belief throughout its history, I just don’t think you can separate the human element of it from the rational logical side completely.  And as a result, I think science definitely does have the ability to engage people on an emotional level very strongly,’ he continued. ‘I think the reason why art and design are such good mediums for science communication is not because they target the heart rather than the head, but because of the similarities between them.  Artists/designers have the skill set to visualise or convey the wonder of science in a way which many scientists often don’t.  Although processes may initially seem very different for artists and scientists, a lot of the work follows a similar route; the outcomes just manifest themselves in different forms.  Science definitely has the ability to engage people’s emotions, but sometimes just needs a medium which can be digested a bit more readily by the public, this is where art and design can come in.

Both Wynn and Patrick’s thoughts highlight the importance of emotion in communicating and engaging people with scientific content, and also that art does induce emotions in people. However, I do still question the extent to which science-art can engage people with the science behind it. And, more importantly, whether such a strong divide can be made between different disciplines and how they affect people’s emotional response to them.

I’m sure that there are many nuances of this broad topic that I have overlooked, and many more questions which I haven’t address – I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic and hear about any examples you may like to share so please comment below…

12 thoughts on “Emotional engagement

  1. Very nice post! There are so many nuances… I’d argue art is tricky, as one person’s trash is another’s treasure (ex- Damien Hirst anyone?) Also, I think that with art, it’s also not just about the heart, but also the head as oh so many conceptualists will show us. Another interesting aspect is that sci-art *can* be communication of the science, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s a beauty in that it can approach the science from a crazy tangent, or produce something that is just beautiful, but (unless you maybe read the very long caption) has no meaning.

    There’s so much good stuff in here. Would it be ok with you if I did a reply to this on my blog?
    -Johanna

  2. Thank you for the very interesting piece, Lizzy. It’s made me think, a lot, and my first thoughts are that I find science very emotional, indeed I think it’s possible that there are very few things that humans encounter which we process in an entirely non-emotional way. For example, my colleague at UCL, Gabriella Vigliocco, has recently shown that emotional information forms an important part if the ways that we represent abstract words (e.g. Words like ‘justice’ or ‘love’, words it’s hard to form an image of).

    I also feel that arts and sciences are both ways of trying to understand our worlds. They’re both creative, they both lead to important insights, and they’re both brilliant expressions of human abilities and inventiveness.

  3. I have a background in science communication although I have been painting a lot lately too. I went to Science Meets Parliament in Canberra, Australia a few years ago. Most of the people there were highly respected scientists and I was a young communicator working for a dot com.From where I sat, the scientists had some great stuff they were working on but had trouble expressing themselves in plain English and needing translating. When you consider the personalites involved, it would be good to partner up your stereotypically more reserved researcher with a more outgoing expressive type to get the message out there. I am using art to visually communicate the difficulties of living with a chronic illness and it is coming together really well. I am much more of a writer than an artist but the art sums it up so much better. You can just look at the paintings and just know what I felt.

  4. Lizzie, I enjoyed reading your post and thought you might be interested in seeing an example of science becoming art. Dylan Burnette, Ph.D., a Yale educated microscopist and currently a professor at Vanderbilt University has presented some of his images as fine art. You can see them presented here – http://www.mag2art.com

  5. I agree with you but not in full. In my opinion, art emotion can be understood in the different ways because it depends on the situation where you are, and the personality of the people. So if you are interested in a specific topic it will be possible that you can feel art in its different forms. As an architect, I believe art and science are very related because before you understand art well you must understand and appreciate information about art and study different artists at the time. I consider that this article to be very good so it explain situation the one form very special and I give you congratulations!

  6. One thing you said that I particularly agreed with was when you said “I think the reason why art and design are such good mediums for science communication is not because they target the heart rather than the head, but because of similarities between them”.Nevertheless I believe that the heart is more dominant than the head. An example I would like to use to illustrate my point is some people are describing war with art or music, which is the most effective method.But first of all, they would benefit from feeling emotions.in other words if people don’t see war or civil war, they never will understand how much damage life.Thank you very much

  7. Recently I had the opportunity to read your article above, and it made me think about some points that you made. First and foremost I would like to say I am an enthusiast of the popularization of sciences and very satisfied in find your text. One thing you said that particularly touched me was “in order to fully engage someone with a subject you have to engage their emotions”. In my opinion it`s entirely right and I hope you don`t mind me enphasizing that only with the emotional engagement can we deeply believe in something. I found the Patrick Stev-Keating point of view reported in your interview, considering parallels between art and science and both as having a fundamental basis of questioning their environment, a very interesting point. When we see the same basis of the two areas or subjects with different ways, it`s easier to realise how complementary they are. Thank you, very interesting post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s