A Train Running in the Sunset, Takako Tomita

Arts-based evaluation uses artistic techniques to collect, evaluate, and report data. My approach to ABE relies on applied neuroaesthetics, or the science of how our brains interpret and produce art. As each part of the brain controls multiple functions, seeing or producing art connects the artistic experience to other functions of the brain. For example Takako Tomita’s (age 4)  A Train Running in the Sunset flips the train track over the engine, simplifies the engine into a large black mass, and gives us a sketch of the coal-man tending the engine. We do not see the sun, but we do see the colors of the sunset and the smoke of the locomotive. Tomita gives us an impression of how the train feels to her, more than how it looks or operates.

Producing this drawing involved the primary visual cortex (light intensity, patterns, contour, color, visual attention, spatial orientation, other functions) the secondary visual cortex (light intensity, patterns, color and shape, mental imagery, spatial working memory, visual memory recognition, other functions) and the Inferior temporal gyrus, which controls metaphor comprehension, language comprehension, visual fixation, combining visual elements into perceptual wholes, and understanding the intent of others. In other words, as Tomita drew the locomotive, she drew upon the subconscious parts of herself that understood what another person meant to do, and how different things relate to each other (metaphors). As we see her drawing, we go through the same process, using the same subconscious parts of our own brains. In a way, her subconscious has communicated directly with our subconscious. Once our subconscious perceives the drawing, it can’t “unsee” it. The information must be processed and stored.

As we all do ABE work, it’s important to remember that we’re going through this subconscious-to-subconscious process over and over. As different art forms call on different parts of the brain, the affected parts of the subconscious change, depending on the genre. In a typical evaluation, we may engage with a few works of participant-generated art, or dozens. Each work can potentially affect evaluators in unexpected and seemingly indirect ways.

Additionally, we should all be mindful of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue happens when we listen to stories of suffering and feel powerless to help. Our empathy circuit (supramarginal gyrus) starts to run low on cortisol and oxytocin, two chemicals that help that part of the brain function. Everything the supramarginal gyrus controls is affected: verbal creativity, certain types of memory, self-control, doing simple repetitive tasks, understanding and judging conflict with others, social perception, goal processing, basic math, and other functions. Since all of this happens subconsciously, none of us can say “that last drawing has really affected my goal processing” or something similar. Typical effects look like irritability, tardiness, sadness, a feeling that others just don’t understand, difficulty concentrating, mental and physical exhaustion, and loss of hope. In extreme cases, it can lead to nightmares, flashbacks, and compulsive behaviors like substance abuse, overeating, and (compulsive) overspending.

In short, evaluators using arts-based methods may experience new and different types of stress. So what can we do to stay engaged and productive? Rest, relax, recharge. Get plenty of sleep, and note if you’re experiencing sleep disturbances. Take extra care to eat healthy food. Drink plenty of water. Hang out with friends. Read a book. Exercise, practice yoga, meditate. Above all else, communicate with your team, and your friends and family.