What if art changes us in measurable ways?
What if the experience of art becomes an important part of who we are?
What if religions understood how art can uncover spiritual sensibilities?
At age 84, author Kurt Vonnegut responded memorably to a letter from a high school student. He encouraged his recipient to practice art — any art –“no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”
As with most words of wisdom, these were as much a reflection of Vonnegut’s life experience as they were advice for someone else.
Art can change our minds. And the transformation that often seems to occur — whether a person is creating art or experiencing it – intrigues Joshua Wilt, Ph.D., a psychology researcher at Case Western Reserve University.
With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, he’s leading a multi-phased research project to learn more about how art may be a doorway to better understanding ourselves and even the larger meaning of our lives. He’s testing a premise: that a meaningful encounter with art can become a significant part of what psychologists term our “narrative identity.” This refers to the autobiographical stories we tell ourselves and others about our lives, experiences, and personal growth over time.
“The creation of art involves a story — the inception of an idea, its manifestation into material or performance, and a final product. Experiences with art can also be narrated, as a storyteller may recount how fledgling insights matured into nuanced appreciations,” Wilt explains. “For people who view art as central to their lives, such stories may take on great significance. They connect the present to the remembered past and imagined future in ways that give life continuity, purpose, and meaning. In this way, the experience of art may become a part of the person.”
Building on emerging research that indicates art can enhance cognitive abilities, Wilt’s project pushes forward by testing whether art increases comprehension of spiritually significant issues. Using the theory of narrative identity as a lens, he’s investigating both effect and cause: whether life stories about art convey deeper spiritual understandings and whether interaction with art predicts greater understandings in people’s stories about their spiritual lives.
“Theories of aesthetic appreciation suggest that artists attempt to convey meaning in artwork and audiences attempt to extract meaning from art. This suggests that art may lead to meaning-making by eliciting a reflective focus and powerful, inward responses. Our project is based on the idea that art may direct the mind toward critical thinking around ultimate meaning and authenticity,” he says.
For starters, the researchers are conducting phone interviews with 100 artists and art enthusiasts. They’re being asked to identify and talk about an artwork that’s been especially meaningful or memorable — from any domain they remember in some detail and regardless of the age in which they experienced or created it. The questions are designed to dive deep. The researchers hope to uncover what made the art experience so special, what participants were thinking and feeling, what the experience meant to them. Importantly, researchers are also asking questions to assess what participants learned from the experience with a focus on sacred, spiritual, or transcendent meanings or influences.
All research questions were carefully designed to be as inclusive and approachable as possible for participants from many different religions as well as for those without a traditional faith.
“We’ve tried to create a broad definition of spiritual understanding so that it could touch upon many different understandings — things like mystical or transcendent experiences, experiences of connection with supernatural forces, or any interaction with spirits broadly defined that exist in people’s worldviews,” explains Wilt.
From the resulting wealth of inputs, the researchers will use a quantitative coding system to extract common themes. These will be foundational for their second study, conducted online with 800 participants. Again, all will be artists and art enthusiasts. Written responses to the same questions used in the first study will be translated into the coding protocol. The resulting data will be statistically analyzed.
The third study aims to broaden and generalize the findings. A representative sample of 2,000 U.S. adults will be recruited for online interviews. The data produced will allow researchers to assess themes of ultimate meaning and authenticity in correlation to participants’ involvement in and expertise with different kinds of art. The sample size provides unprecedented opportunities to detect the effects of arts experiences and explore whether they differ by variables, Wilt emphasizes.
By using mixed methods and statistical analyses, the researchers aim to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of how art can impact individuals’ spiritual lives and their sense of self. They plan to share their findings in presentations and publications. Additionally, they will make all the data open.
Wilt believes this project sets a precedent that others can build on.
“By approaching our research through the lens of narrative identity, we will achieve a first-person view into how the mind grapples with ultimate meaning and authenticity. And by addressing how supernatural attributions play a role in the process, we may gain knowledge about how basic cognitive processes influence beliefs about complex existential processes,” he says.
These are insights whose time is now, he believes.
“What we’ve been learning from the interviews is that there’s a real desire to connect with a more intuitive way of being. That may have been somewhat neglected throughout modernity as we’ve focused on all the great things that the natural sciences and technology can produce for us. Focusing on art can tap into a complementary way of being – not better, but complementary — that can resonate with a person subjectively at the level of their sense of core meaning and purpose. It can uncover a true sense of self that we want to be expressed and experienced in the world. I think there’s increasing recognition and buy-in to this kind of spiritual, heart-centered way of life rather than living only through logic and rationality.”
In other words, through studies like this one, art may be gaining significance in our world as a means to become our truest selves. And, in the process, make our souls grow.