Four years of Handling Mind and Materials 2012 – 2016

The Handling mind research project aimed to provide a bridge between areas of neuroscience, education and design research – all concerned with embodied activities, social creativity and the extended nature of the human mind. Art, craft and design was understood as a multifaceted activity that involves complex cognitive processes and embodied interaction with materials and tools. This post introduces snapshots on some of our interesting results and provides links to the published doctoral dissertations and research articles.

Independent clay throwing by deafblind participant after receiving tactile guiding. Images by Camilla Groth.

Assisted clay throwing, tactile guiding










Camilla Groth

Link to Doctoral study:

Making sense through hands: Design and craft thinking analyzed as embodied cognition

The importance of touch and haptic experiences in decision-making processes and the link to emotions in the context of craft-making was one of the key findings. During the making process, the practitioner seems to gain manual skills and tacit knowledge but also builds herself as a practitioner. Manipulating material could be seen as a way of being in and affecting the world as well as negotiating meaning related to our abilities and limitations. Read more in Tactile augmentation: A multimethod for capturing experiential knowledge.

Many different levels and notions of emotions surfaced through and in connection with haptic experiences. Emotions related to haptic and tactual experiences in a craft-making process affect and regulate risk assessment, decision-making and problem-solving. Moreover, a form of re-knowing of previous knowing aids in overcoming challenges. Read more on Emotions in Risk Assessment and Decision Making Processes.

Touch was an essential evaluation tool for making decisions on materials and for testing materials, but also for communicating ethical and social aspects of the design. Read more on The knowing body in material exploration.

Tactile skills could be taught relying solely on tactile means (omitting verbal and visual means), as the embodied knowledge of the teacher, including exact timing of movements and limb pressure, is more readily available to the student in such a setting. Furthermore, modelling can become an act of making sense (in a similar way as drawing is generally considered) through its capacity to give form and initiate ideas and through its iterative properties. Read more on Making sense: What can we learn from experts of tactile knowledge?

Tarja-Kaarina Laamanen

Link to Doctoral study:

Generating and transforming representations in design ideation

Design ideation is a multimaterial and multimodal process where representations and objects of the material world – important triggers for ideation – inspire and direct the ideation process. Importantly, creative ideation requires gradual development of ideas. Studied design situations required constraining the task in personally meaningful ways. A design situation that started as open was framed by generating and transforming representations, and these intertwined efforts created the dynamic nature of ideation. Read more on Sources of inspiration and mental image in textile design process.

Professional designers had developed strategies of efficiently finding and using sources of inspiration as well as different types of representations for their current cases. Developing a professional vision meant also competence in seeing a common underlying characteristic such as a pattern, a concept, a class membership, a rule, a process or causal relation.  The four approaches to ideation, graphic, material, verbal and mental approach illustrated these versatile processes. Read more on Interview Study of Professional Designers’ Ideation Approaches.

Students had to find their own self-imposed constraints in order to manage their design ideation processes. When they did this successfully, they framed the situation in ways that resembled professional designers’ practices. However, novices who did not yet have mature design-thinking capabilities, anchored their process too early to a chosen source of inspiration. Read more on Constraining an open-ended design task by interpreting sources of inspiration.

To conclude, the exploratory process of generating and transforming representations is a holistic making-related activity that is best supported by interaction with peers and different types of externalization methods. In teaching design ideation, deliberate practices and a variety of techniques for generating and transforming representations to develop visual ideas, as well as meaning-making for personal engagement and exploration should be included.

Mimmu Rankanen

Link to Doctoral study:

The visible spectrum: Participants’ experiences of the process and impacts of art therapy

The study focused on clients’ experiences of art therapy process and it’s impacts. A case study described how the changing qualities in the embodied creative art process, in the context of art in therapeutic group, affect the participant’s mental relation to the emotionally problematic issue. The transformative change process proceeded during the creative process from embodied experience into the perception of an alternative meaning.

The quality of aesthetic creative experiences can either hinder or aid a participant’s mental and emotional change processes. In the studied case, the changes from cognitively controlling art-making into a spontaneous and playful approach to art-making – which the client made her way to make art – also affected other levels of her experiences by changing a helpless relationship with a traumatic experience into an agentic position, wherein more flexible observation and experiences of resourcefulness became possible.

Read more on The space between art experiences and reflective understanding in therapy and Clients’ experiences of the impacts of an experiential art therapy group

Contradictions or challenges that are experienced within a therapeutic relationship, group environment or during art processes affect the participants’ experiences of therapeutic change. Interestingly, these experiences can either turn into significant aiding processes and a good outcome or become stagnant and hinder the therapeutic process. Unpleasant emotions that remain unsolved could arise during sensory interaction in art-making or in social interaction, and a fear for others’ interpretations could prevent or restrict expressing personally important issues. The results create a clearer and better structured understanding of how crucial it is for the experienced outcome of art therapy to encounter and reflect those intrapersonal, intermediate and interpersonal experiences, which awake unpleasant emotions during the process.

Artistic interaction that takes place in a group context may include unique therapeutic mechanisms or processes. Any aspect of this intervening interactive relationship between art, participant, therapist and group can either have positive influences or negative influences on the participants’ art therapy process or the outcomes they experience. The results include an overview on how clients described the therapeutic or un-therapeutic effects of art as well as the kinds of positive processes or influences that participants have experienced in relation to art therapy group. Read more on Clients’ positive and negative experiences of experiential art therapy group process and The three-headed girl. The experience of dialogical art therapy viewed from different perspectives.

Tellervo Härkki

Link to Doctoral study:

Handling Knowledge: Three perspectives on embodied creation of knowledge in collaborative design

In collaborative design, students engage in focused knowledge work. On the other hand, collaborative designing can be understood as drafting series of essential features (of the problems and the solutions) in different formats, which build on linguistic and embodied resources.

Sketching has an acknowledged role in facilitating idea generation and communication. In these studies, collaborative sketching was utilized when memorising was required, especially to depict spatial configurations, whereas gestures provided a channel to ideate fine details clearly and with precision by employing both visuospatial and kinaesthetic feedback. Moreover, gestures revealed a conceptualisation that was different from words. A strength of gestures as a resource for creative collaboration is that gestures invite designers to share and communicate rather than withdraw.

Material knowledge was a resource to address the challenges of making, not an end itself. In general, materials were considered to be practical solutions rather than sources of inspiration and new ideas.

In general, the practice of sharing ideas as and when they emerge might benefit novices as much as any single design tool. At best, active and rich use of embodied resources alongside the linguistic ones can turn interaction into inspiraction, that is, interaction that inspires—elicits new ideas and (even) more productive interaction. Further, the epistemic role of the studied embodied resources is not necessarily limited to enriching communication and thinking but could entail the ability to elicit more ideas by enhancing the intensity and richness of collaborative designing.

Read more on Line by line, part by part: Collaborative sketching for designing, Material knowledge in collaborative designing and making – A case of wearable sea creatures and Hands on design: comparing the use of sketching and gesturing in collaborative designing

Maarit Mäkelä

The creative process could be described as altering positions of serendipity and intentionality. Intuitive leaps are taken when circumstances are fortunate or feed the process with opportunities for progress. These paths may be followed or re-wined through an internal, and sometimes shared, learning process that takes time and that benefits from breaks and time for reflection. Materials act as agentic forces and may be attributed partial ownership of the process as they enable or disable certain possibilities through their affordances. Read more on Personal exploration: Serendipity and intentionality as altering positions in a creative process.

Maarit Mäkelä & Teija Löytönen

The physical environment and materials – active agents in the learning process – create a performative learning space. In such a space, learning becomes a more unpredictable and experimental process, opening up new, emergent possibilities. Pedagogical relationships go beyond the teacher and the curriculum, and the agency of materiality has a pedagogical effect. We propose that materiality teaches in its own way, and the design of the learning setting has an important role. Matter can have an unanticipated or unexpected contribution to the learning processes – and to the final artefacts. In addition to the pedagogical agency of matter, physical environment as part of the material world also has agency, thus creating a performative learning space. Instead of contributing solely to transmitting knowledge and skills, the teacher’s role then is to create conditions for the emergent and evolving learning – and to be prepared to learn herself, alongside the students. Read more on Rethinking materialities in higher education.

To sum up four years of intensive work in a blog post is hard

However, we are happy that the goals of the project were achieved very well and we did not drastically change the implementation of the research plan. The project provided a new understanding of the meaning of embodied knowing in relation to material culture. It also revealed new ways to focus future research efforts toward multidisciplinary research. The challenge of the project was to conduct interdisciplinary research creating a mutual language between different discourses (design research and neuroscience). In order to get good quality data in neuroscientific standards we were forced to make compromises in some of the research settings. The strict experimental setting that we had to implement to get our data did not easily capture the essence of the creative design process. Anyhow the discourse was fruitful and we were able to receive meaningful results.

Research setting utilising movement sensors on the wrists and a heartbeat monitor.
Photo by Camilla Groth.


Research setting utilising EEG as well as movement sensors on the wrists and a heartbeat monitor.
Photo by Camilla Groth.


Each of the 30 participants produced 92 pieces of formed clay and 92 drawings, resulting in a room full of ceramic artefacts and drawn designs. Photo by Camilla Groth.

The most challenging task in the project was to design a research setting that would capture the practical information that is relevant to the field of design research, but at the same time acknowledge the limitations of the data that can be acquired via methods used in the field of brain research. The main work related to designing of these methods (Track C) were already done when writing the application, and during the project we were able to implement these study settings to the practice. Thus, in the study we were able to gather the planned data, though in small scale. This means that even though we have results, they are mainly tentative due to the limitations of the gathered data. Regardless, our main contribution to the field is that we opened a neuroscientific track in the field of design research that may be built on by future research teams.

Read more on our neuroscientific studies on

Huotilainen, M., Rankanen, M., Groth, C., Seitamaa-Hakkarainen, P. & Mäkelä, M. (2018) Why our brains love arts and crafts: Implications of creative practices on psychophysical well-being. FORMakademisk Journal, 11 (2).

Seitamaa-Hakkarainen, P., Huotilainen, M., Mäkelä, M., Groth, C. & Hakkarainen, K. (2016) How can neuroscience help to understand design and craft activity? The promise of cognitive neuroscience in design studies. FORMakademisk, 9 (1) Article 3, 1-16.

Leinikka, M., Huotilainen, M., Seitamaa-Hakkarainen, P., Groth, C., Rankanen, M., Mäkelä, M. (2016) Physiological measurements of drawing and forming activities. In: P. Lloyd & E. Bohemia, eds., Proceedings of Design Research Society Conference 2016, Brighton, Vol. 7, pp. 2941-2957, DOI 10.21606/drs.2016.335

Seitamaa-Hakkarainen, P., Huotilainen, M., Mäkelä, M. Groth, C. & Hakkarainen, K. (2014) The promise of cognitive neuroscience in design studies. In Lim, Y.-K., Niedderer, K., Redström, J., Stolterman, E., & Valtonen, A. (Eds.). Proceedings of the Design Research Societys’ Conference, Umeå, Sweden: Umeå Institute of Design, Umeå University. pp. 834-846.

4 presentations by Handling Mind at NordFo2016, Sept 28-30, Rauma, Finland

Handling Mind research was well presented at the international NordFo2016 conference Make it NOW! Learning, Exploring, Understanding that took place September 28th-30th. The conference was hosted by the Rauma Unit of University of Turku, and the conference was part of the anniversary celebration of 120 years of teacher education in Rauma.

Rauma campus has a windmid.  Photo by Mari Salovaara

Rauma campus has a windmill.
Photo by Mari Salovaara

One of the conference excursions  introduced history and today of lacemaking at Rauma:

Photo by Mari Salovaara

Photo by Mari Salovaara

Photo by Kaiju Kangas

Photo by Kaiju Kangas

In the conference, we had total four presentations:

  • Video as a tool for knowing in craft practice by Camilla Groth
  • Studying utilisation of meaning-laden embodied resources in collaborative designing – methodological challenges of gesture studies by Tellervo Härkki and Pirita Seitamaa-Hakkarainen
  • Methods for research on experimental and embodied knowledge by Camilla Groth
  • Design tasks and materials as affordances for collaborating craft teacher students by Henna Lahti, Kaiju Kangas, Tellervo Härkki and Pirita Seitamaa-Hakkarainen

The first three abstracts are available here, and the last one can be found here.


Art of Research

(Original text by Camilla Groth and Anna Kholina)

AOR01Art of Research Conference V • Experience • Materiality • Articulation

The fifth Art of Research Conference was held at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Arabia campus over two days in November. The 112 participants consisted of a very international crowd, from 20 countries travelling to Helsinki from as far as New Zealand.

The Conference aimed at sharing an understanding about the ontological, epistemological and methodological issues of practice-led research, and to offer an academic framework for discussing the special themes of this year, experience, materiality and articulation.

Art of Research 2014 conference space served as a venue for the main exhibition.

Art of Research 2014 conference space served as a venue for the main exhibition.

Based on the call for papers, 21 double blind peer reviewed papers were selected to be presented at the conference. Some of the key questions that were discussed in these papers revolved around the issues of:

  • How is experience articulated through artifacts and their making?
  • How does material agency and affordance affect the making of an artifact?
  • What stories lie behind artifacts and how do narratives support creative activities?
  • What is the role of the body in research through practice?
  • How does an exploratory approach to creative processes and materials contribute to the production of new knowledge?
  • Articulating artistic processes in academia, through writing.

Keynotes for the conference were Welby Ings, Professor in Design at AUT University, New Zealand, Juhani Pallasmaa, architect and professor Emeritus of Aalto University and Kerstin Abraham, Professor of Fine Arts and Ceramics in Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts and Design, Germany.
The themes discussed by the keynotes included drawing as a form of cognitive activity: Juhani Pallasmaa highlighted the connection between the hand and the brain, while Welby Ings introduced the method of immersive drawing to create a film’s story and treatment. Kerstin Abraham’s presentation was focused on the conference’s special theme — ceramics.

Keynote presentation by Welby Ings.

Keynote presentation by Welby Ings.

As always the core of this conference is to highlight also the artifacts as a contribution to knowledge making. Therefore the presenters of the conference proceedings were again encouraged to bring their artifacts to the conference exhibition that was built in the main presentation venue.

Exhibited work by the keynote Kerstin Abraham.

Exhibited work by the keynote Kerstin Abraham.

The conference was preceded with a one-day pre-conference workshop, organized by two members of the editorial boards of the Journal of Artistic Research (JAR) and Ruukku. The workshop consisted of a crash course in the use of the Research Catalogue and the very experimental publication platform that these Journals make available for researchers.

This year the conference also included the special interest group of ceramics and related research. Therefore the conference was combined with several satellite exhibitions with ceramic as the main focus. Within the Arabia campus three related exhibitions were arranged, called Material Matters including a student exhibition, a teacher and staff exhibition and a research exhibition.

Material Matters student exhibition in Lume gallery.

Material Matters student exhibition in Lume gallery.

The satellite exhibitions also included two large public galleries. In the nearby Arabia gallery an artist association called the Fat Clay Group exhibited their work and in the Helsinki Design museum the works of 42 ceramic artists are shown as the main exhibition during the autumn 2014.

The special theme of ceramics encouraged also practitioners in the field to join the research conference. In addition a special course for master and doctoral students was arranged called “Introduction to practice-led research”, which enabled also the students to enjoy the conference.

This years collaborators were with the University’s Department of Film, Television and Scenography, the Handling Mind research project and the Finnish Association of Designers (ORNAMO) together with the Association of Finnish Sculptors).

Open lecture by Danielle Wilde

(Original advertisement by Camilla Groth in May 2013)
Next Monday 27th May 2013 at 13.30-15.30,
Aalto university, school of art, Design and Architecture
Hämeentie 135
8th floor lecture room 885
PhD Danielle Wilde will give a lecture on the topic of Embodying Neuroplastic Change. Groundbreaking neuroplasticity research demonstrates how interactive technologies can be used to leverage and increase our brain’s capacity to learn. Wilde will discuss how embodied interaction, in particular enriched engagement in artistic activities, may powerfully compliment existing techniques for stimulating neuroplastic change.
Danielle Wilde develops frameworks and structures that engage people kinesthetically and imaginatively, prompting them to reflect on the beauty of diverse ways of being, and how personal, idiosyncratic dreams and desires might help shape our technological future. Her work privileges awkwardness to democratise engagement and give value to diverse ways of moving, thinking and being.
Wilde is a recipient of the 2013-2014 Australian Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship, for outstanding talent and exceptional professional courage. At present she is a Visiting Research Fellow at RMIT School of Fashion and Textiles; a research associate of CSIRO Material Science and Engineering, Australia. Danielle holds the first Fine Arts PhD undertaken within CSIRO – Australia’s national scientific research organisation, and an MA in Interaction Design, from the Royal College of Art, London. Her aim is to shift how people think about their bodies, abilities, creativity and technology.
The event is hosted by Empirica research group, Department of Design,
For more information contact:

Design Exploration and Experimentation Course

(Original text by Camilla Groth in february 2013)

Design Exploration and Experimentation

The Design Exploration and Experimentation (DEE) course is an educational platform focusing on design students’ personal creative process and their individual way of managing its phases. It supports artistic and exploratory ways in design, and its focus is on students’ unique expression. The underlying values of the platform relate to the importance of self-understanding and awareness of personal creativity as the foundation for the capability to practice empathic and thoughtful design.

The optional DEE is a master level course (4th and 5th grade design students) arranged for a small group of design students in Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. The roots of the course are in studio-based practice and practice-led research. The course lasts 8 weeks, and its program is built around a personal project with the given theme. These artifacts will be presented in a collectively built exhibition at the end of the course, arranged this year at the Atski Gallery in Helsinki during the period 7-14 of March 2013. The freedom to choose one’s own task and outcome is supported by providing a course frame, which consists of numerous tasks as sources for inspiration, weekly process-sharing sessions, and personal tutorials. In addition, the students document the creative process and reflect on it in several ways.

“Somehow, the idea of an artistic interpretation seemed really tempting. I’ve been thinking that this is probably the only course I can do something like this so why wouldn’t I also try to develop myself in the process. I could do the whole project from the basis of self-reflection and self-development.” (Student reflection, 18 February 2013)

By ethnographic engagement, making sensitive observations, and gathering rich data during the course, we will be able to capture how students experience their personal creative process. The researchers engagement and position inside the group give us a privileged position to follow, also, the uncertainties, challenges and disappointments students face. Our objective is to develop the support-feedback-framework of the course to support each individual student in her unique way of flourishing.

Heinävesi trip

The DEE course is every year taking the participant students on to a trip to some destination that serves as a catalyst of ideation for the chosen topic of that year. Since the topic of the year 2013 is Faith, the course trip headed to Heinävesi, famous for the Valamo monastery and Lintula convent. The 13 participants of this years course consisted of Finnish and foreign students. An old wooden school building was reserved as a camp and local people catered for the food and transport during the five day visit.

Photo by Jaana Lönnros

The program at Heinävesi included a visit to the Valamo monastery and the Lintula convent as well as participating in an orthodox ceremony and meeting and talking in depth with representatives from these instaces.

Valamo monastery. Photo by Jessie Hsu

Lintula convent. Photo by Jessie Hsu

“In the Lintula convent we met a nun, and we had a short discussion about inner peace. I think I don’t have inner peace yet. But I believe that I will find it later in my life. I don’t say I don’t have inner peace at all, but something is still missing. And I think it is mostly related to my professional identity.” (Student reflection, 18 February 2013)

Along with these official visits the meeting with the locals opened an other view of religious beleif as stories of spirits and unsusual experiences were unfolding. The local food and customs such as the art of baking karjalanpiirakka, sauna bathing and even igloo making made up an unforgettable experience for many participants, perhaps especially the foreign students. The igloo was even used as a camp as some students slept over night inside it.

Igloo building. Photo by Gabriela Rubini

Finishing the igloo. Photo by Lisa Gerkens

Avanto. Photo by Jessie Hsu

“When taking pictures alone in the dark, fear and loneliness almost killed me.” (Student reflection, 4 February 2013)

“Damn, that I enjoyed having these daily walks through beautiful clean snowy landscape under the bright stars. (…) It has to be said that the Finnish nature can be so extremely mesmerizing, you almost forget the power it has when you live in big cities where you can find only few trees as a some kind of visual backdrop for parks. Something interesting could spin-off from this subject…” (Student reflection, 4 February 2013)


Handling mind

Handling Mind is a multidisciplinary research project providing a bridge between areas of neuroscience, education and design research that are concerned with embodied activities, social creativity and the extended nature of the human mind. The research project is aimed at revealing qualitative and quantitative aspects of art, craft and design processes in the educational context, as well as socio-emotional and brain-functional aspects related to working with hands. Through four interlinked study tracks we will examine how participation in creative activities associated with crafts and design affects the participants’ socio-emotional experiences, the nature of the associated embodied thinking, with focus on the interaction between mind, body and materials.

The project is funded by the The Academy of Finland’s Research Programme on the Human Mind.

Handling Mind on monitieteinen tutkimusprojekti, joka pureutuu sekä luovuuden ja muotoilun tapahtumiin liittyvään keholliseen oppimiseen että niiden neuraalisiin mekanismeihin. Se yhdistää neurotieteen, psykologian, muotoilun ja kasvatustieteen lähestymistapoja kehollisen ajattelun ja luovuuden tutkimisessa. Eri alojen lähestymistavat linkittävät mielen, kokemuksen ja sosiaalisen vuorovaikutuksen teemat luoden uutta tietoa sosio-emotionaalisen sekä kehollisen oppimisen suhteista taiteen, käsityön ja muotoilun prosesseissa. Tutkimuksen tavoitteena on avata aivan uudenlaista taiteen, käsityön ja muotoilun prosesseihin kohdistuvaa neurotieteellistä tutkimustraditiota.

Muotoiluajatteluun liittyvää neurologista tutkimusta on tehty vasta hyvin vähäisesti, joten tutkimuskonsortiolla on erinomaiset mahdollisuudet yltää maailmanluokkaan niin neurotieteen kuin muotoilun tutkimuksen alueilla. Luova mieli tutkimusprojekti luo ja testaa sekä eri aivoalueiden tehtäviin ja toimintoihin liittyviä hypoteeseja että tutkii muotoilutoimintaan liittyviä prosesseja ja taitojen oppimista.

Tutkimuksen puitteissa tapahtuva menetelmällinen ja teoreettinen kehitystyö sekä siitä saatavat empiiriset tulokset ovat edelleen sovellettavissa monille tutkimusaloille. Tulosten odotetaan myös käytännössä edesauttavan eri-ikäisten ihmisten opetuskäytäntöjen kehittämistä sekä olevan sovellettavissa niin sosiaali- ja terveysalan palvelumuotoilussa kuin terapeuttisissa ratkaisuissakin. Tutkimustulosten avulla pyritään yhä monimuotoisempien muotoilukäytäntöjen edistämiseen sekä tämänhetkisen taide- ja designkoulutuksen sekä työelämän ympäristöjen rajoja ylittäviin saavutuksiin.

Hankkeen rahoittajana toimii Suomen Akatemian Ihmisen mieli –tutkimusohjelma.