My SDP: Art and Social Cognition

By Ava Bialow

Oftentimes, the most fulfilling educational experiences occur when a student takes initiative to learn beyond the classroom. Beaver offers the option of student-directed projects to any student as part of the curriculum. These projects, independently led and created by students, allow students to dive deeper into a certain subject of fascination that isn’t offered as a traditional course. In the winter of 2021, I chose to design and take part in a research-driven student-directed project to explore a personal interest of mine. I have always possessed a genuine interest in how human psychology, specifically social cognition, can subconsciously influence societal behavior and social interaction. I chose to explore these concepts by developing a theory through research that claimed that while social cognition is the human brain’s most useful and advanced set of processes, it simultaneously functions as one of the most harmful due to the stereotypes and preconceived notions that these processes can create. While part of my project was an in-depth research paper elaborating on the purpose and impact of social cognition, the central product was a series of paintings I created that challenged me to explore how complex concepts like cognitive processes can be represented through pieces of art that collectively could symbolize my conclusions. 

For this independent project, I also wanted to focus on mental health and specifically how people can affect each other’s mental states. I decided to shift my attention toward the set of processes that grant humans the ability to socially judge and assess one another: social cognition. Humans are a social species and we are centered around our interactions with one another, so social cognition plays a key role in our lives and is one of our most essential cognitive processes. At the same time, it can have a negative effect on our relationships and interactions with others. It is impossible to entirely prevent ourselves from making inferences during these social cognitive processes, but if we face these assumptions head-on, we can rule out judgments and have more enjoyable and honest social encounters with other beings. Furthermore, the art portion of the project tied in an aspect of creativity in terms of presenting research and creating these paintings was quite the tedious task. When attempting to depict subjects like emotions and ideas that are impossible to visualize as straightforward images through art, I was required to turn to my resources and knowledge as an artist in order to encapsulate the true nature of this concept. 

This study was eye-opening as it introduced me to the significance of how our interactions with other beings can be affected by the brain’s advanced abilities. My objective with this project was to draw attention to the assumptions and stereotypes that our brains are so effortlessly able to conceive about one another. If we as a society are aware that our brains tend to assume and infer, we will have a much easier time blocking out false assumptions and understanding the fallacy within them. I learned that as humans, it is imperative that we are aware of the fragility of each others’ mental states and the impact we can have on other people; even the smallest interactions can lead our brains to spiral down a path of creating irreversible and harmful assumptions about ourselves and one another. While this project initially functioned as a learning experience that would grant me the ability to learn about fascinating cognitive aspects, it taught me a lot about my personal work ethic, independence, interests, motivations, and worldly concerns. This SDP experience also helped to strengthen and diversify my skills as a writer and artist. I really enjoyed working on this project and plan to do another SDP this winter. Ultimately, I definitely recommend taking advantage of the SDP program at Beaver and exploring your own personal interests outside of the required core curriculum. 

Check out this SDP using the QR code below!

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