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Art + Psychology:

How the Brain Revolutionizes and Transforms

the Arts

High School Art Curriculum Rationale

Georgi Beck
Northern Illinois University
Dr. Richard Siegesmund

Art and Psychology: How the Brain Revolutionizes and Transforms the Arts, a high

school art curriculum, explores how the theories of psychology can be applied and adapted to an

art class and create a critical educational experience for students. The human brain is something

that sets the human species apart from any other creature on the planet. Visual experiences play

a significant role of cognitive development that affects human’s biophysical responses,

motivations, and social interaction. Historically the arts have been used to tell the story of

humanity, document the values and morals of society, and bring people together in shared

experience. These arts have been created through the artist’s brain that make decisions about

what is going to be created based on the cultural values, the social atmospheres, and the

knowledge of art and science. Understanding how the brain reacts and processes to the world

around it opens up a doorway for discussion, critical thinking, and individual exploration. The

focus of this curriculum is to understand how the brain reacts and processes to the world around

it through art, which opens up a doorway for discussion, critical thinking, and individual

exploration. The process of creating visual narratives and discovering the interrelationship

between psychology/cognitive psychology and visual art help students build the technical skills

in art media, cultivate the ability of critical voice, and develop the sense of identity within a

larger world that high schoolers will soon be entering.

According to Shernoff, Csikszentmihalyi, Schneider, & Steel Schernoff (2003), “With

respect to instructional relevance, students are more likely to become engaged with authentic

academic work that intellectually involves them in a process of meaningful inquiry to solve real

life problems that extend beyond the classroom” (p.2). Students have the shared experience of

having a five-pound mass of brains within their skulls and bringing that subject into the
classroom allows for them to critically examine the most complex and unique organ that exists in

the animal kingdom. This curriculum is most suited for high school students due to their ability

to delve into these complex subjects. This curriculum is designed to teach students how the

inner workings of their brain influence every decision they make including individual choice,

societal interactions, approach to everyday decisions, underlying reactions shaped by society,

and how the basic underlying structures that exist within all animals influence the gut reaction to

the world around it. Students at the High School level are more capable of grasping higher level

concepts; Issues of ethics, morality, and real versus possible situations are such intangible

concepts that high schoolers are capable of approaching due to their cognitive development at

this age (Oswalt 2019). The biggest and most complex tool at their disposal in education is their

brain and understanding it beyond the basic structures allows for students to understand

themselves and others better.

My conceptual framework, the front cover of my curriculum depicts a brain with a halo

of images that reference historical art, contemporary art, and art from visual culture. At the

bottom center of the brain is a color wheel, reference that the beginning of this entire curriculum

is based in the science of how the brain experiences art. To the left of this color wheel is a

contemporary tapestry, a tapestry loom, and a bottle of spray paint reference the mediums of the

first two lessons of unit 1. A portrait by Van Gogh, Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster, and Keith

Haring’s Tuttomondo round off unit one in which students are critically considering how artists

use the science of art to make decisions in which the viewer has a specific response to work and

begin to practice that in their work. The beginning of Unit 2, Motivation of Psychology, is

depicted by the rose, tattooed men, and flash sheet reference the flash sheet lesson in Unit 2.

This is followed by a photograph of a crumpled man by Vivian Maier, a vintage camera, a statue
of Buddha, Untitled [Head] by Basquiat, and two hands creating a pinch pot reference the

photography and ceramic project in Unit 2. President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley, and

Untitled (I shop therefore I am by Barbara Kruger references a dual project in which students

engage with taking portraits of themselves that express both their real and ideal selves. I Shop

Therefore I Am by Barbara Kruger, Chance the Rapper, and Elton John reference a lesson in

which student critically engage in culture created by the music industry. This framework is

presented as art oozing from the brain, to show the relationship between art and its creator, the

brain of the artist. Viewing this conceptual framework allows for viewers to understand that

there are many historical, contemporary, and current culture influences informing, shaping, and

driving this curriculum. The title is bold and center across the brain to bring attention to the

connection of the interdisciplinary study. The aims and goals are below this brain of images in

order for people to understand the ultimate outcomes of this curriculum.

Curriculum Aims and Goals:

In Art and Psychology: How the Brain Revolutionizes and Transforms the Arts, students

will be expected to achieve aims and goals. Through the aims and goals the students will be able

to understand the purpose behind each lesson, acquire and develop skills, and gain knowledge

necessary to complete the lessons.

Aim 1: To support the development of critical voice

Aim 2: To instill concepts of individuality, acceptance, inclusion, and diversity

Aim 3: To analyze influences and changes in the visual arts in historic and

contemporary examples

Goal 1: To apply critical voice when approaching new and unfamiliar subjects
Goal 2: Constructing concepts of individuality, acceptance, inclusion, and diversity in

visual narratives

Goal 3: Analyze how society, culture, time, and place influence visual art creation and


Each aim and goal correspond for Illinois Visual Learning Standards. The first aim and

goal are supported by standard VA: Re 7.1.I, “Hypothesize ways in which art influences

perception and understanding of human experiences” (Visual Arts Standards 2016). This bridges

into the artmaking practices supported by standard VA: Cr 1.2.II “Choose from a range of

materials and methods of traditional and contemporary artistic practices to plan works of art and

design” (Visual Arts Standards 2016). By developing a critical voice in discussion and

artmaking, students will be able to approach everything they will encounter on a daily basis and

not react based on societal norms, cultural expectations, and gut reaction, but in an open and

empathetic way. In order to achieve this, students will examine and discuss historic and

contemporary examples of visual art and compare and contrast their techniques, mediums,

themes and intent. Students will be able to critically and purposefully create visual artwork by

using their critical voice.

The second aim and goal are supported by standard VA: Cn 11.1.I, “Describe how

knowledge of culture, traditions, and history may influence personal responses to art” (Visual

Arts Standards 2016). Therefore, students understand that their personal response to art is

different from their peers, their personal experience differs from their peers, and how their

personal experience is shaped by their family, society, culture, and place in time. By learning

about others, we do not “other” them. We become to identify one another as part of the ingroup,
defined as “a group with which one feels a sense of solidarity or community of interests”

(Merriam-Webster 2019). Students begin to see the bigger world outside of their individual

experience and begin to identify that responses of others are based on a bigger world

influencing and informing them. This is also supported by standard VA: Re 7.1.I

“Hypothesize ways in which art influences perception and understanding of human experiences”

(Visual Arts Standards 2016). Students can use art as the bridge to learn about one another and

their human condition.

The final aim and goal are supported by standard VA: Cn 11.1.3 “Recognize that

responses to art change depending on knowledge of the time and place in which it was made”

(Visual Arts Standards 2016). Students will be comparing their own experience in the

contemporary world to theorize and engage with historical contexts. By seeing how the visual

arts have changed overtime to reflect the human condition of that time, students begin to

understand how the brain is influenced and shaped by the environment around them.

Importance of Theme:

By understanding biopsychology, or how biological processes influence behaviors,

feelings, and thoughts (APA 2019), students can have the tools necessary to critically dissect the

world around them. According to (I have to find the source), the human’s natural response to

new stimuli is to approach it with fear, the body’s natural and evolution-based tactic to keep

itself alive when confronted with new things. With this knowledge, students can reconstruct

their thought processes and learn how to approach new, unknown, and unfamiliar stimuli with an

open and critical mindset. An additional aspect of biopsychology is how we respond and

interpret art. For example, colors elicit different responses based on cultural models that the
person understand that given color. Take the color red. In Western society it is associated with

passion, excitement, occasionally religion, power, and communism. In the Middle East it is

associated with danger, evil, and caution. In Latin America it is associated with religion when

used with white. In Eastern and Asian cultures, it is associated with good luck, joy, happiness,

and celebration. Our biophysical response to that color, reacting to a painting in a positive or

negative way, is dictated by our cultural references. By considering how the audience might

interpret a piece of visual media, students are not only able to analyze it effectively but can

create more meaningful and effective messages in their work.

Motivation is an easy concept to comprehend but challenging to enact in the classroom.

To tap into that motivation teachers can evaluate extrinsic and intrinsic motivators in their

students and recognize performance-approach and performance-avoidance goals. Extrinsic

motivation is defined as behaviors driven by external rewards such as money, grades, or praise,

while intrinsic motivation is defined as behavior driven for the personal rewards or gains (Reeve

2014). By having a delicate balance of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators built into the

curriculum such as achieving a grade alongside having students investigate their personal

interests within a piece of work, students are more likely to have continual engagement with the

class. Students will be engaging in 3D and 2D media in this unit which allows for students to

explore different strengths through various art forms, and is more likely to motivate them if the

curriculum isn’t completely based in a student’s ability to draw. Performance-avoidance goals

are defined as the desire to avoid performing more poorly than others while Performance-

approach goals are defined as trying to outperform others (Darnon, Harackiewicz, Butera, &

Mugny 2007). By reteaching students how their approach to a problem affects the outcome,

their response to any situation can become more constructive in nature because they can
deliberately approach problems in positive ways. Having this mindset allows for them to go out

and conquer any task in any field.

Humans are naturally social animals, we thrive and are defined by our interactions with

others. Art has always been part of society as it is used to shape opinions, share information, and

express the human condition. Within the class structure students can recognize how they act

around one another, are continuously learning from one another, and are shaping their own

identity from one another. This follows with the concepts of Social Learning and Social Identity

Theory (Neuberg & Cialdini 2015). The time of Victorian art for example, was a time in which

the rich and elite socialites gathered to purchase and buy art that reflected the aesthetic values of

the time. Street art today works with themes of social change and is accessible for anyone who

knows of its location on the public street. By discussing how art can disrupt and guide social

interaction, students have the power to drive it in a positive direction. Students will be reaching

out into their community and researching and engaging with a specific social issue of their

choice and creating a piece of activist work that is intended for public display.

Each brain is built differently. Each student that engages with this curriculum will have

different motivators, experiences, passions, influences, and knowledge. By learning about how

their brain is built, students can approach everything with the understanding that being built

differently is normal and equally as valuable as the expected average functions perpetuated by

everyday society. As Albert Einstein once said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by

its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. Each brain is built

differently, and by understanding that one student’s motivation to participate in swim team is

equally as valid as another student engaging in a L.A.R.P. club, we begin to see one another as
equals because we understand that differences should not be feared, but respected because they

are valid ways of existing.

Course Description:

The first unit students will engage in will be Biopsychology of Art. Students will start

with exploring the science of art and how the brain takes in visual art as well as how art

processes have changed throughout history and throughout cultures. During this unit students

will be creating woven tapestries, spray paint portraits, and work together as a group to create a

pop culture mural. Subjects include science behind art experiences, technological changes in the

arts, historical movements of aesthetics, and historical art making practices. Students will be

learning a base set of elements of art, engage in critically comparing cultural differences in the

arts, common aesthetic appeal during different time periods, and how technology directly

influences artistic practice. The concepts learned the first unit will be expanded on during the

second unit.

Students will begin the second unit with Motivation of Art. Students can engage in more

meaningful and intentional ways during this unit because students will have had critical

discussion, understanding, and reflection of how the brain processes art. Students will be

creating ceramic sculptures that represent something that motivates them, tattoo flash sheets

connecting with their identity, song collages based on music that inspires them, and photography

diptychs that capture their candid self and idealized self. Students will have learned how their

brain understands elements of art and can decisively use them to create meaning in their work.

These projects will also allow for them to seek out meaning and understanding of themselves in a

way that makes them feel heard in the classroom.

In the third unit, Social Psychology of Art, students will be collaborating and exploring

with one another to engage in creating art that is addressing issues relating to social processes

and change. They will select and choose an issue that is relevant to social theories of psychology

and choose a medium to create a piece of work intended for public display and is made to change

public opinion. By engaging with a social issue with the intention of having their work be

experience publicly, students will be working with underlying concepts of social psychology.

Developmental Level:

Entering high school is a dramatic and stressful transition in students’ lives. Students are

still going through puberty and dealing with drastic changes in their physical body and being

bombarded with neurotransmitters gone wild in their brain in response to their growing body

(Caskey & Anfara 2014). They are also beginning to change social structures and value peer

relationship over adult opinions, amassing countless neural connections that allow for them to

engage in higher level planning, decision making, and building moral values, and are attempting

to define and explore their identity (Caskey & Anfara 2014). Being a teacher that recognizes and

empathizes with the changes that these students are going through are the teachers that are going

to be able to reach their students. According to a study done by Muller (2001), “in general,

students who perceive that teachers care expend more effort at school (as reported by teachers),

although at-risk students put forth much less effort than others, independent of whether they

perceive their teachers care”. Students want to be able to have a teacher that shows that they

care, and this curriculum allows for individual exploration regarding topics that are affecting

them each and every day of their lives.

Choice is essential to this curriculum. Choice has been shown again and again to

improve student engagement in the classroom. As Skeeters et al. (2016) thoughtfully observed,

“their technology rich world is robust with opportunities for decision-making and choice, but

when they enter the classroom, the opportunities for choice are much more limited”. Their

education should reflect their world; giving them choice allows for them to practice making

decisions that they will be making as an adult in a controlled and more meaningful setting.

Additionally, “First, choice increases interest by providing the opportunity for students to select

what they are already interested in. Second, choice may generate interest where previously it did

not exist” (Flowerday & Schraw 2014). Without this opportunity for choice this curriculum fails

to reflect the theories of psychology that promote these theories.

Multiple projects in this curriculum rely on group work. During high school, teaching

about positive relationships between peers, teachers, and other adults is crucial to making sure

every student feels like they belong in the classroom community. According to Newman,

Lohman, and Newman (2007),

Human beings are social animals; they mature over a long period in dyadic, small group,

and other group contexts. Thus, it is not surprising that a growing body of evidence

suggests that people are healthier and happier when they experience social belonging.

Conversely, exclusion and social isolation are perceived as painful and are associated

with a variety of negative affective experiences including anxiety, depression, anger, and

shame (MacDonald & Leary, 2005) (p.241).

Without acknowledging this crucial element of human nature, students are missing a part of what

makes them human. Connecting with others has been shown by research to decrease risk factors

that lead to mental health issues, negative choices, and feeling isolated from the world.
Newman, Lohman, and Newman go on to describe some of these risk factors due to social

isolation, “more likely to eat more snack foods, give up sooner on frustrating tasks, and have a

harder time paying attention in dichotic listening tasks. The studies support the view that social

rejection undermines a person's sense of purpose” (p.244). By working in groups, they are

practicing social skills and fostering important relationships. They engage in problem-solving in

a creative way with subject matter that affects all of them. They are discussing, interpreting,

creating, and connecting about shared interests, valued differences, and global issues. Giving

them opportunities to work together is the key the teaching them that people can work together to

solve a problem no matter what differences they might have.


In Art and Psychology: How the Brain Revolutionizes and Transforms the Arts, there will

be a multitude of resources that students will need and use throughout the curriculum. These

resources will help them explore various mediums, engage in meaningful discussions, foster

relationships with their peers, critically engage with the content as an artist would, and enhance

their learning experience. Students will need access to computers, internet, printers, and books

to engage in research for their work. They will also need artist sketchbooks in order to document

their research, sketch and develop their work, draft artist statements, and keep a journal topics

discussed in class. This will be a formal assessment to track student development and to track

group work. Traditional mediums will be provided alongside digital software on computers to

allow for multimedia approaches to artmaking.

Additional resources proposed for this course:

Google Classroom for Assignments and Video Demonstrations
Power Outlets

Traditional Art Media:

o Pencils
o Erasers
o Workbooks
o Spray Paint
o Stencil sheets
o Tagboard
o Glossy paper
o Sharpies
o Acrylic Paint
o Paint Brushes
o Various Fibers
o Cardboard to make looms
o Plastic Crochet Needles
o Glue sticks
o Variety of Paper
o Access to Photoshop
o Scissors
o Boxcutters/XActo
o Access to Cameras
o Students smart phones
o Various Props for Photoshoot
o Stoneware
o Various Ceramic Tools
o Outdoor Space
o Internet Access
o Recycled print material
o Scissors
o Acrylic Canvas Rolls


Caskey, M., & Anfara, V.A. (2014). Developmental characteristics of young adolescents.

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and performance-avoidance goals: When uncertainty makes a difference. PSPB. 33(6),


Flowerday, T. & Schraw, G. (2000). Teacher beliefs about instructional choice: A

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Gage, J. (1999). Color and meaning: Art, science, and symbolism. Berkeley: University of

California Press.

Kenrick, D.T., Neuberg, S.L., & Cialdini, R.B. (2015). Social Psychology: Goals in

Interaction (6th Edition). Boston: Pearson Publishing. ISBN: 9780134090962

Muller, C. (2001). The role of caring in the teacher-student relationship for at-risk students.

Sociological Inquiry, 71(2), 241-255.

Newman, B.M., Lohman, B.J., & Newman, P.R. (2007). Peer group membership and a sense of

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