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BC Psych Professor Studies Psychology in Art

Heights Editor

Published: Sunday, October 14, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01


Her walls are an eclectic canvas, splashed with the vibrant colors of masterpieces crafted by Chinese children, Italian preschoolers, and chimpanzees. She speaks art, and teaches how we think art. Ellen Winner is a professor in and chair of the department of psychology at Boston College and a senior research associate at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero. She teaches a class called “The Psychology of Art, Creativity, and Genius,” which explores how people and the brain respond to art, the relationship between art creativity and mental illness, the effects of art on creating moods, and how we perceive pictures.

It is impossible not to notice the art that infuses Winner’s walls with brightness and an air of mystery. Rather than Picasso or Monet paintings dressing her white walls, impressive yet rudimentary pictures crafted by children and animals hang there. Perusing the room, she explained the different configurations of pictures. Placed next to a drawing made by her own son are paintings that were sent to her by a preschool teacher in Italy, highlighting the range of children’s artistic ability at different ages. In another section of the room are pictures made by children she studied in China who were taught in a very methodical, step-by-step fashion to do incredibly complicated work. Because every child is given the same training, each can complete the same picture in an almost identical way. Another part of her wall displays the work of child prodigies she has been studying, some with Asperger Syndrome, who excel at realistic drawing. She calls these prodigies “precocious realists.”

Her color-splattered walls also contain the evidence of a study she completed with her doctoral student, Angelina Hawley-Dolan, which was published in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science in 2011. Similar-looking abstract paintings juxtaposed on her wall were the material for her study “to test whether people really conflate paintings by professionals with paintings by children and animals.” In this study, Winner and Hawley-Dolan showed artists and non-artists paired images, one by a famous abstract expressionist and one by a child or an animal, and asked which they liked more and which they judged to be a superior work of art. Participants ended up preferring professional paintings to seemingly identical paintings created by a chimpanzee or a young child. In addition to boosting the legitimacy of abstract art, Winner was also able to offer a window into how we perceive art. When people chose the professional works, they explained that it was because these works looked more intentional, more thought-out and less random. As Winner said, they saw more of a “mind” behind the art of the professionals. So people think they can’t tell the difference between a Jackson Pollock and a child’s work, but they actually can.

Although Winner’s research may seem to be a daunting undertaking to an undergraduate, the psychology department makes research opportunities very accessible. To begin with, all students enrolled in either “Introduction to Psychology as a Natural Science,” “Introduction to Psychology as a Social Science,” or “Introduction to Behavioral Statistics and Research I and II” are required to earn three research credits as a research participant during the semester, which equates to being in three one-hour research studies. If a student is enrolled in more than one of the four courses, though, he or she only has to complete the three required credits once.

Following the student’s participation in a study, the researcher will grant research credits using Sona Systems. It is the student’s responsibility to keep the receipt as a record of participation and to verify that he or she has received credit. The studies students participate in are on all kinds of topics—visual memory, attention, moral reasoning, estimating number, reading emotion in faces, responding to works of art—they can even participate in a study in the sleep lab. If students do not wish to be a research participant, they do have the option to critique an article instead. Most students choose to participate in studies and earn research credits, however.

Winner underscored the value to the student of being in a study, noting that students “learn what it is like to be a research subject in an experiment. You are debriefed and understand the purpose of the study and see what psychological research is really all about. Students learn that psychology is not just a body of knowledge that you can take off of a shelf, but it is always being produced. It is an active science and it is changing all the time.”

Kelly Miller, A&S ’15, noted how this required research has motivated her to get a feel for psychological research, which is a direction she definitely may consider in the next two and a half years at BC. “Participating in the studies were actually really rewarding because I got a taste of what researching would be like if I decide to pursue that eventually,” Miller said.

In addition to being participants in studies, students are strongly encouraged to join a research lab and participate in designing and running studies. BC also makes it possible for students to carry out their own study as a thesis or as an independent study project. If a student proposes a study, finds a faculty advisor willing to supervise, and applies for Institutional Review Board approval, the study can begin. Some studies are run without funding, and others are funded by BC internal research expense grants, or by external granting agencies. Students are also sometimes paid for working in a lab through the BC Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

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