Campus & Community

Portrait of an Artist’s Mind

3 min read

Melding the tools of cognitive development, developmental psychology, art, brain-imaging technology, and education, Kim Sheridan is trying to unlock the mystery of artistic taste.

It has taken years for Sheridan just to formulate this idea, which reflects the path of her own life’s work. After completing an undergraduate degree in painting, Sheridan received a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year in Kenya, studying contemporary East African art.

“What fascinated me was that I was living in a very different culture, and yet I could communicate through visual art,” she says. “That’s when I got the idea that there are basic human processes involved in creating art, but also huge cultural differences in how art is expressed.” Since then, Sheridan has been trying to get a sense of how to connect universally human artistic expression with its myriad forms. “I had no background in the social sciences at the time, but all of the questions I was coming up with pointed toward the field of cognitive development.”

Sheridan went on to develop art classes for preschool through middle-school students to foster their involvement in the arts. What she found surprised her. “Unlike infants, who share innate preferences about shapes and colors, preschoolers already differ in their artistic tastes,” she says.

“Working with pre-schoolers showed me that as we grow older, we develop a vast spectrum of tastes.”

Intrigued, Sheridan wondered how artistic taste develops—and how taste influences artistic expression. Now a second-year doctoral student at GSE, she is conducting pilot studies in both of these areas; her investigation into the factors that develop artistic taste and expression—particularly in the mature artist—involves using a brain-imaging procedure known as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). The study’s participants, explains Sheridan, will view slides of artwork while encased in a tunnel-like machine; its magnetic fields indicate which areas of the brain actively respond to the artwork.

“I’m trying to look at how aesthetic taste affects the way that people understand artwork,” Sheridan says. “By combining the brain imaging data with interviews, I’ll get a broader picture of how people both interpret and create paintings.”

“I really love designing experiments, testing out ideas, and building up new knowledge through this process,” Sheridan adds. “You can use the brain-imaging data in research, but you can also make use of the messier, qualitative data that shows up in educational settings. There is a way to synthesize and bridge the various disciplines I’m interested in; this is what drew me to the Ed School in the first place.”