Comparing Engineers’ and Artists’ Brains — or Brains is Brains — sort of!

umbrellacar with students.jpg

Sena Clara Creston, WSU-Tri-cities Art Faculty, sitting in her creation, designed and constructed by my students, 2015 — the Umbrella Ship

This week, I’m off to New York City to share a presentation with a collaborator at the College Art Association, on combining engineering and art.  Sena Clara Creston, faculty in the School of Fine Arts, and I teamed up with my other fellow traveler, Jake Leachman, to pair students and an artist (that would be Sena!) in order to gain some insight into collaboration and thinking styles.  My thesis was (and mostly remains) brains is brains is brains.  But there’s no question that backgrounds definitely matter, and understanding these were one of the key elements of our little research project.

I’ve always maintained that creativity isn’t inherent to any given discipline.  Individual creativity is that egocentric Authoritarian v-Meme triggering residing in one person’s brain, and is poorly understood.  It’s some function of limbic threshold response that brings the thoughts in one’s head to a point, where something new gets created.  And when it comes to systemic creativity, I’ve already written a bunch on that.  Systemic creativity is directly related to the meta-nonlinear dynamics created by the back-and-forth, empathetic exchange between the participants. When you set up a group of people and give them a task to get done (a goal), some degree of personal agency, and some Legalistic v-Meme Protocols and some multi-solution heuristics (like negotiating skills,) cool stuff will appear.  You won’t necessarily know what it is a priori, but it will happen.

The presentation in New York City is mostly Sena’s baby, but I get a couple of slides, and it does raise some big questions.  Brains may be brains may be brains, but there’s no question that people, and disciplines do think differently.  A better way to think about it might be to chase down the ‘hardware/firmware/software’ paradigm and see if we can’t get some understanding there.

With regards to hardware and the brain, there seems to be some general consensus on things like IQ tests and other pattern recognition testing on the brain.  Fair enough.  That’s a process-based thing, though, and doesn’t map well to the idea that topical content is hardwired into your brain.

However, there are a few examples of topical behavior that jump out at people! (Pun intended.)  We know that humans are naturally afraid of snakes, and some people have this thing about spiders.  This would seem to be both topical, and hardware-based, though even that’s not clear.  If we discount the people having deliberate Survival v-Meme trauma with our spidery or snake-y cousins, then I think we can settle on this as heritable topical knowledge.  There’s got to be other stuff — like yellows and reds being fruity flavored.  At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that most of the human brain is not topically hardware-oriented. Getting to the problem at hand, you might be able to do a survey and sort out engineers and artists to figure out if a disposition to hating snakes and spiders had to do with one or the other. Whatever!

Next on the list is firmware — epigenetics.  I’ve talked about epigenetics before, how basically experiences of your ancestors (mostly trauma) can alter your genetic code, and give you certain physical predilections to certain behaviors, such as aggressiveness or paranoia.  While epigenetics seem very likely to pass along certain process behavior, it also seems extremely unlikely to pass along any topical information.  One or two bad generations of genes don’t seem likely enough to construct a fear of ferris wheels, for example.  You just can’t lock in the geometric structure with a fear of intergenerational beatings.

So I’m going to go out on a limb(ic) system, and argue that epigenetics doesn’t pass on topical information — only dispositions, emotional tendencies, and various potentials for sensory heightening (like hyper vigilance.)

That means that for the most part, our brains are deeply coded with the Siegel Brain model for processing topical information.  For those that have forgotten what that looks like, the picture is below:

Modified Siegel Brain

What this means is that information from our various systems gets dumped on the Left side of the brain in the form of explicit knowledge.  This might be stuff we learn in school, the information from an ad flyer about what’s on sale, and various books and such.  In order for us to use this, it has to get processed into a holistic, autobiographical form on the Right side of our brain.

How can we understand this with our Theory of Empathetic Evolution?  Information from the lower v-Memes, things like situations, algorithms, and knowledge fragments get placed into the Left side.  Mapping back to our Artists and Engineers comparison, those lower v-Meme knowledge structures are going to be pretty different.  Assuming that people’s primary and high school experiences are somewhat the same (yeah, I know they’re not, but humor me!) the engineers are likely to learn more algorithms, take more math, and maybe even a drafting class or two, which is very structured.  Artists are going to be learning the basics of sculpture, 3-D visualization, painting, etc. They’re also likely to be goosed by their instructors to practice things like free association, and other forms of impulsive creativity.  And if they had good teachers, those art teachers probably also asked the students to engage in reflective activity about their own life experience, that they had to represent with art.  The idea here would likely be “reflect on your life experience and construct art that could convey to an audience a given emotion that you felt.”  Note that this kind of practice, with some guidance, is directly related to empathy development.  How?  First, you have to empathize and connect with yourself.  Then you have to empathize and connect with an audience.

In certain ways, it’s much less likely to happen in any kind of engineering education, especially at the lower levels.  Much more emphasis is going to be placed on mastering the explicit skills of engineering — conducting that statics analysis, figuring out the circuit diagram voltages, or learning the laws of physics. Prospective engineering students may indeed work on a project where they apply their skills to building some contraption, and that creates a holistic/autobiographical experience unto itself.  FIRST Robotics is big on this. But building a basketball shooting robot isn’t as likely to fill in the reflective part of the empathy development profile. Though there’s no question that the teamwork and goal-setting aspects would definitely fill the bill.

With those thoughts, let’s look at a modified Siegel picture for understanding the artist’s and engineer’s brain:


This is a fun one about one of my favorite artists, Isabel Samaras.  Isabel combines classical art with pop themes and excellent classical execution.  It’s obvious that Isabel has some algorithmic scaffolding, in her sophisticated use of color, as well as precision of brush strokes.  But much of what drives Samaras’ art is fuzzy sexualized re-conceptions of  relational dynamics behind pop icons.  You can’t predict what she’s going to paint next.  Her painting (shown in the picture) The Abduction of the Simian Women pulls from both Ruben’s The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus and the Planet of the Apes series.  A more stratified mind likely couldn’t link those two themes.  Yet Samaras, pop/classical surrealist that she is, does so seamlessly.  And Samaras is no amateur — her work is also another re-integrative step beyond, pulling integrated experiences back from her childhood as part of her Left-Brain explicit palette, to be re-integrated again.  And again.

Here’s a figure of my engineering students, and their brains:


Heavily scaffolded, of course, with guiding principles hanging in the background.  But there are some floating conceptualizations there, too.  Many of my students don’t want to just learn algorithms.  There are aspirations in there, and some level of reflection that some of the stuff they are learning will actually have to be used if they want to work at Blue Origin or SpaceX.

What’s the bottom line?  Both sides can use each other — especially if the art is supposed to spring off the page.  In the case of Sena Clara’s Umbrellaship, she had to relocate multiple parts of the display so that the whole contraption wouldn’t tip over.  The students got multiple spankings on aesthetics — I’d repeat over and over “this thing is a work of art — it has to LOOK good!”  And it was a whole lot more fun than making another round of mousetrap cars.

So are there differences between engineering brains and artist brains?  Well, sort of.  But the fundamental drivers and dynamics of empathetic evolution are the same.  And the key to remembering when sharing work between any set of diverse constituencies.

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