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Inspiring Peace in Dangerous Spaces

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The image of Buddha is serene and lovely and visually beautiful in a garden, says sculptor Indira Johnson, but it serves a different purpose when it appears in harsh and dangerous spaces. Dozens of sculpted Buddha heads are emerging in unexpected places in troubled Chicago neighborhoods, and Johnson hopes their presence will be a catalyst for conversations about peace and nonviolence.

In a story by Mark Guarino in the Christian Science Monitor, Johnson explains that she is convinced public art can serve social issues and alter the way people think about their environment. She approached community organizations and activists and suggested using her sculpted Buddha heads in ways that could generate discussions about peace. The heads are incomplete. They appear to be growing out of the ground, out of sidewalks, near train tracks, in parks, near schools and in what she calls marginalized spaces. Johnson suggests her symbolic intent was to make the heads seem to emerge from earth, "Just like all of us ....growing in our self-realization and spirituality." Johnson isn't promoting Buddhism or any religion. Her goal is to provoke and inspire transformative thought.

The effort was started by Ten Thousand Ripples, an art and civic engagement project Johnson launched a year ago with the nonprofit organization Changing Worlds. Communities were offered ten heads each, and local people chose where to place them. Johnson wanted people in the communities to respond in their own way, and she reports that they have. The heads have been moved around and made to face in different directions. One head decorated with painted makeup was later cleansed and painted white. In Albany Park community residents said the sculptures were a call for peace and harmony, a message that fit with violence prevention, youth training and conflict resolution efforts begun in response to gang related shootings.

In an interview with Jenniffer Weigel in the Chicago Tribune, Johnson, a native of Mumbai, India, who attended the Chicago Art Institute and made the city her home decades ago, talks about her art and a universal desire for peace and a better future. She thinks individual experiences with art can help people think about huge concepts like peace and how an individual can have an impact.

"I like the metaphor of ripples," Johnson said, referring to the title of her organization. "It was based on the idea that your actions go on and live past you."

Read the Christian Science Monitor Story here, the Chicago Tribune story here, and to learn more about the Buddha project visit

Tags:  art  buscell  community  complexity matters 

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Art's Influence: Empathy, Tolerance, Critical Thinking

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 28, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A national survey by the American Association of School Administrators showed that 30 percent of nation's schools eliminated planned field trips in the 2010-2011 school year and 43 percent planned to eliminate trips in the 2012- 2013 year. What are our future citizens losing? It may be quite a lot. Recent research showed a mere half day's exposure to art produced a wide range of desirable intellectual and emotional effects.

Brian Kisida, Jay P. Greene, and Daniel H. Bowen, in their New York Times essay "Art Makes You Smart" describe a controlled study that involved nearly 11,000 students and 500 teachers from 23 schools. Half of the students were selected by lottery to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in November 2011 in Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum, founded by Alice Walton, whose father Sam Walton founded Walmart, has more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and an endowment of $800 million. The youngsters, in grades 3-12, were divided into anonymous pairs, based on grade level and demographic similarities. One member of each pair toured the museum, and the other paired partners had tours that were deferred until after the study. Students whose visits were deferred were the control group.

The Box
Kids who visited the museum saw and discussed five paintings, and some got to wander around looking at things on their own. All the youngsters were asked to write a short essay on a painting they had not previously seen, Bo Bartlett's The Box.
They were asked what's happening in the picture, and why do you think that? Mary Anne Janco, writing in The Inquirer, says Bartlett painted The Box after 9/11. It shows his son, Eliot, and a young girl who also modeled for his paintings, dressing up from military garb found in a box.

The student essays were stripped of identity information and measured for critical thinking using a rubric developed by researchers at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston. The children who had visited the museum turned in higher performances on critical thinking, as well as showing greater historical empathy, tolerance, and sustained interest in art. The surveys were conducted between three and eight weeks after the museum visits, and results showed children remembered a great deal of the factual information about the art they saw, even though they hadn't been tested or required to memorize anything. Children who took the tour also observed and described more details in the images. Research results are also published in the Educational Researcher.

Ploughing It Under

In a story in, the three researchers describe how the assessments were done and the value for the kids. During the museum tour, children saw and discussed Eastman Johnson's painting At the Camp-Spinning Yarns and Whittling, depicting abolitionists making maple syrup to undermine the sugar industry, which relied on slave labor. And 88 percent of the youngsters remembered details of the pantingand its meaning. Nearly as many remembered the artist and meaning of Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter, showing the importance of women in the work force during World War II; Thomas Hart Benton's Ploughing it Under, showing a farmer destroying his crops as part of a Depression era price support program, and Romare Bearden's painting Sacrifice, part of the Harlem Renaissance art movement. While all the youngsters who had the museum experience demonstrated enhanced skills, students from rural and high poverty schools seemed to benefit the most.

Tags:  art  buscell  complexity matters  education 

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Samba School Lessons for Leaders

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 31, 2013

Business leaders can learn valuable lessons from the exuberant four day Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo and other big Brazilian cities, according to a scholar who has studied how people in samba schools prepare the elaborate floats and present imaginative themes and fabulous performances in music and dance.

Carnival, with its festivals, costumes and parades coming just before Lent, the 40 days preceding Easter, has been celebrated in Brazil for centuries. Samba schools, which compete for prestigious rankings of their Carnival entries, aren't teaching institutions as the name might imply. The Rio Service Carnival Travel and Tourism website explains that samba schools are more like social clubs, community organizations, and sometimes political groups, that also spend months of every year preparing for Carnival. They got started in the 1920s, the website says, among people from the Bahia state in eastern Brazil who came to the cities bringing the music and dance of their Candomble religion. Today's samba schools are big, complex organizations, and Alfredo Behrens, a professor of Global Leadership at Faculdade FIA de Administracao e Negocios in Sao Paolo, believes big corporations should pay heed to how they operate.

Behrens, whose most recent book is Shooting Heroes and Rewarding Cowards: A Sure Path Towards Organizational Disaster, studied Mocidade Alegre, a samba school that won first place in the Sao Paolo parade in 2012 and 2013. He interviewed people throughout the organization, including dancers, who have no managerial authority, members of a 250-man percussion orchestra known as a bateria, many directors and the school's president. He writes about his findings in his Harvard Business Review blog. He explains that referees judge the samba schools wins and rankings based on 10 criteria similar to key performance indicators (KPIs) used in the corporate world.

While many samba school participants hold corporate day jobs, they put in long unpaid hours for Carnival preparation. Behrens says Mocidade members feel like family. He quotes Daniel Sena, the schools' director general of harmony, as saying winning is important, but the core of the school business is treating people nicely. "That's what makes people come back for the renewed challenges even after losing a parade," he told Behrens. Sena, who works in finance, thinks niceness is undervalued in the business world. A corporate mediator and samba coordinator told Berhens she'd seen "corporations discarding people as if they were garbage when they are past their prime" while samba schools "recycle" and respect their "oldies." Behrens says Mocidade is a closely-knit community with strong focus and great teamwork. It has more than 30 directors, who have considerable autonomy in their own projects. The president is a woman, newcomers are welcome, and the organization doesn't rely on conventional discriminatory ethnic and social hierarchies. Behrens thinks businesses in Brazil and elsewhere can be more successful if they learn how to build community and practice in ways that make people want to engage and work together. Read Behrens blog here. And see some fabulous photos in the Daily Mail.

Tags:  art  buscell  community  complexity matters  leaders  music 

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Into the Same Space as Death... With Grace...

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 18, 2013

Empathy and generosity of spirit take a battering in the exigencies of medical training, physician Danielle Ofri writes, and doctors and nurses have to learn to face the hard realities of death, dying and dead bodies with skill, grace and compassion.

"Where do we gain the fortitude to step into the same space as death and negotiate the unnerving complexities that eddy between our breaths?" she asks in a Slate magazine essay. "It’s not the type of thing you can Google."

Dr. Ofri, who has researched the joys, fears, stresses and conflicting messages young doctors get when they enter the clinical world, is author of the book What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine. She is an associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, has cared for patients at Bellevue Hospital and is the editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review, which she says focuses on creative interpretations of medical challenges and vulnerabilities. Dr. Ofri believes patients and physicians need poetry and that in order to be wise caregivers, doctors and nurses need the creative skills people learn from studying the humanities. Sometimes, she observes, "it is the things we deem least practical that wield the most power."

Her Slate piece describes the work of Cuban American physician-poet Dr. Rafael Campo, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, who recently won the Hippocrates Open International Prize for Poetry and Medicine for his poem "Morbidity and Mortality Rounds." Accepting the prize, Dr. Campo wrote, "Through my poem - about a dying patient - I was able to address the power of empathy to combat the distance we almost reflexively adopt toward our patients and confront our own shortcomings." In his interview with Dr. Ofri, he said "A good poem engulfs us," and its brevity and urgency demand "full participation of another in order to achieve completeness, to attain full meaning. In this way, it is not so different from providing the best, most compassionate care to our patients."

Dr. Campo’s prize winning poem begins:

Forgive me, body before me, for this.
Forgive me for my bumbling hands, unschooled
in how to touch: I meant to understand

what fever was, not love. Forgive me...

Read the full poem here.

The poetry of medicine has been collected and taught at several schools. A University of Illinois School of Medicine page compares iambic pentameter to the heart beat.

William Carlos Williams is one famous physician-poet who wrote about life, love, joy, decline, death and his experiences in Paterson, New Jersey, where he lived and worked. Near the end of his lengthy poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, are lines compressing an urgent need for the ephemeral power of poetry:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Tags:  art  buscell  complexity matters  medicine 

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Fractals, Function and Beauty

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 21, 2013

During his study of Jackson Pollock's paintings, physicist Richard Taylor began to wonder whether the fractal patterns he discovered on the paint splattered canvases were the source of Pollock’s timeless appeal.

Taylor and perceptual psychologists in Australia and England gathered fractal patterns that were natural, computer generated and man made and asked 50 subjects their preferences. The found that 80 percent of the time, regardless of how the fractals were generated, the subjects liked patterns that had subtle variations on a recurring theme rather than patterns that were monotonously regular or incomprehensibly random. That work is described in Jennifer Ouellette's 2001 story on Pollock's Fractals in Discover Magazine. The story quotes an environmental scientist as saying that our ancestors on the African Savanna may have become attuned to fractal pattern recognition through their need to know whether the grass was ruffled by the wind or a stalking lion. This kind of heritage, some scholars speculate, might help explain why artists, architects, writers and musicians instinctively mimic the fractal patterns found in nature.

Taylor, whose scholarship includes the visual science of fractals, writes in a Physics World article "Vision of Beauty" that research with hundreds of participants over the last decade-his and that of others-confirms that people find those mid-range fractals most aesthetically appealing. Further, he writes, exposure to these pleasing fractals, the kinds found in clouds, trees, galaxies, lungs and neurons, can reduce our physiological responses to stress and activate brain areas associated with happiness. Aesthetics and function are intricately linked. Taylor, now director of the University of Oregon Materials Science Institute, describes research in the article on how nanoscale fractal eye implants that mimic and communicate with neurons might restore the vision of people who have lost their sight to macular degeneration. A university news story reports the implants would be nanoflowers seeded by nanoparticles of metal that self-assemble in a natural process.

"Why We Love Beautiful Things," a New York Times story by Lance Hosey, also offers insights on origins of our aesthetic yearnings. Hosey paraphrases a biologist as saying beauty is in the genes of the beholder. He notes that for more than 2,000 years sages have marveled at the supposed magical properties of the "golden rectangle" and he notes that the shape is common in today’s books, credit cards, TV screens, and the IPod, as well as the facades of classical buildings and the face of the Mona Lisa. It seems our eyes are good at processing images in that shape.

Research also confirms our response to color and the impact that can have on work, mood and cognition. A Pacific Standard magazine story by Tom Jacobs reports on research showing the green color of limes and leaves "had implications beyond aesthetics.” German scientists found even a glimpse of green can activate mental processes needed for creativity.

As The Times story suggests, good design can impact us wonderful ways. Lance Hosey, the chief sustainability officer at the architecture firm RTKL, is the author of "The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design."
Images: Nanoflower fractal, University of Oregon web site and The Mona Lisa.

Tags:  art  buscell  complexity matters  fractals 

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Love and Art Anticipate Neuroscience

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 9, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
The tragic twelfth century love story of Heloise and Peter Abelard is still irresistibly intriguing. She was a brilliant young student, and he was a famous philosopher and theologian nearly twice her age. They fell in love, had a child and married in secret. Her enraged family had him castrated. They retreated to separate monasteries, and years later continued their love in letters.

Alexander Pope’s poem Eloisa to Abelard published in 1717, tells the tortured tale from Heloise’s perspective. She suffers deeply and begs forgetfulness. The poet imagined her anguished lament:

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd ...

Nearly three centuries later, in the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pope’s line and Heloise’s desperate desire are revisited by characters played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. It’s a zany, entertaining, touching and profoundly disturbing story about estranged lovers who rediscover their emotional bonds after undergoing treatments by a psychiatrist whose bizarre science fictional techniques obliterate memories of failed romances.

Recent news stories report that neuroscientists actually are getting closer to what Heloise and her cinematic descendants sought, and more. Scientists are discovering things in laboratories that might eventually erase traumas, chronic fear, post traumatic stresses, addictions and the memories that trigger them in humans.

The April 6, 2009 New York Times story "Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory” by Benedict Carey reports that a molecule called PKMzeta is present and active in brain cells at the moment they are connecting to consolidate a memory. As Carey explains it, cells activated by an experience "keep one another on biological speed dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event.” It seems that the brain retains memories by growing more efficient connections among these cells, and the PKMzeta molecules may be what keeps the "speed dial” turned on.

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, found PKMzeta is necessary for long term memory, and that a drug that blocks PKMzeta caused lab animals to forget what they had learned in the past.

Another important factor in memory formation is the set of neurons that make CREB, a protein that spikes in the lateral amygdala when a person experiences a scary event. A Scientific American story by Nikhil Swaminathan explains CREB is believed to be involved in memory formation in living creatures ranging from sea slugs to humans. Researchers at the University of Toronto reported in a paper published in Science that selectively deleting certain CREB-making neurons could wipe out a specific memory in mice. Mice taught to fear a specific tone were no longer afraid after the deletion, but their other memories remained intact.

Marie Monfils, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied the importance of timing in formation of a fearful memory. As a story explains it, each time a frightening memory is retrieved, in this case by a tone that reminded rats of having been shocked, the memory is in a labile state and susceptible to change. That means the process of consolidating the memory can be interrupted. Monfils realized that suggested a window of opportunity—a certain period of time during which the fearful memory could be diminished. Rats treated with this method did in fact show lower levels of fear when they heard the sound.

Dutch researchers using pictures of spiders have found that propranolol, drug used to treat high blood pressure, may reduce the intensity of the fear response in people previously known to fear spiders.

While all these findings are promising, researchers say we are still a long way from erasing specific painful memories in humans. Greater understanding of the working of memory, however, offers future hope for the millions of people struggling with Alzheimers, other dementias and age-related memory impairments.

Tags:  art  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience 

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