When art meets science

Founders of Da Vinci Group Mr and Mrs Saravanan.
PHOTO: Tabla!

She was in a job that wasn't mentally stimulating, and she felt like she was facing a mid-life crisis.

It was an impetus for her to pick up a new hobby and she decided on pottery.

The decision proved to be a valuable one for Mrs Amutha Saravanan.

"There was something about pottery. Even after an exhausting day at work, when I went for a class, I felt my brain was lit up, and I was going home very alive even though I was tired," said Mrs Saravanan, who learnt from well known Singaporean ceramic sculptor and potter Jessie Lim for 1½ years.

That piqued her interest in the art, and it was no surprise that the 32-year-old, who has a master's in psychology with a speciality in clinical neuropsychology from the National University of Singapore (NUS), studied the effects of pottery on the brain.

"I did some research to find out what is this that enlivens the brain, and then I discovered neuroeducation - a field of study under neuroscience," said Mrs Saravanan.

She explained that neuroeducation is a field of study that combines neuroscience, psychology and education to understand how the brain optimally learns.

And with clay, she found that "there is a direct hand to brain connection that you cannot get with a paintbrush or pencil and neurons fire more when there is such a connection. It engages the person completely".

She also found that creativity and productivity could be stimulated through the concept of neuroeducation using pottery as a platform.

She shared her findings with her husband, Mr Saravanan Manorkorum, and he too was fascinated.

At that time, she was working in an executive recruitment company while her husband, who has a degree in biomedical science with a major in neurobiology, was working at a talent management company focused on the oil and gas sector.

The duo, who met during an elective module in NUS, were previously professionals in research fields related to their courses but took a career switch in the recruitment industry to develop another skill set.

As they were both intrigued by the effects of pottery on the brain, the couple, who were still holding their corporate jobs then, set up Da Vinci Group in 2012 and spent two years carrying out more research to find out about pottery and its effects on the brain.

"We also did market surveys and carried out interviews to find out how much would someone pay for something like this or if the idea even appealed to anyone," said Mrs Saravanan, who added that there was no company in Singapore offering such workshops in the field of neuroeducation.

Combining their academic backgrounds in psychology and neurobiology, they came up with a curriculum and programme called NeuroCeramics to provide innovative and holistic education for individuals at all stages of life - from 18 months old to 96 years old.

NeuroCeramics suggests that engaging multiple senses while learning new information or skills can strengthen neural pathways in the brain.

It can also help in carrying out everyday tasks more efficiently and with more creative solutions.

Each workshop session involves exploring a topic using clay where participants create a clay piece and decorate or design it using the content of the session.

In 2015, Mr and Mrs Saravanan, both Singaporeans, left their jobs to concentrate full time on the start-up when they received an encouraging response and good testimonials from their clients.

Da Vinci Group offers half-day and full-day activities.

From making safari animals and mystery solving with Scooby-Doo, to creative writing with Captain Planet, exploring the universe, and learning entrepreneurial skills, NeuroCeramics's camps for children boost abstract thinking and problem solving while having fun.

The start-up has worked with schools such as Junyuan Primary, Chongfu School, Julia Gabriel Centre, Melbourne Specialist International School and Eton House, among others.

It has also worked with companies such as Singapore Power, Tokio Marine, Bvlgari and ComfortDelgro to conduct professional development programmes that centre around leadership, sales, productivity and creativity and management performance.

As for the elderly, Da Vinci Group's weekly programme for 24 weeks help them learn a new skill, exercise their motor skills and explore pottery.

The company currently works with the residents of Apex Rehabilitation Centre and Sunshine Welfare Action Mission Home, including people with stroke, dementia and Parkinson's disease.

Said Mr Saravanan, 34: "Their communication and interaction with the outside world is limited as they live in a nursing home. Their day involves a few hours in front of the TV and some physical exercises. Mentally stimulating activities are next to non-existent and that is why NeuroCeramics workshops work wonders for the participants, engaging their senses and thinking processes."

The start-up has a team of 18 trainers, whom the couple have trained to run the workshops.

The workshops cost between $48 and $380, depending on whether the clients are children, teenagers, adults or the elderly.

Apart from that, they also conduct pottery excursion programmes to the dragon kiln in Singapore - one at Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle and the other at Jalan Bahar Clay Studios, both near Tuas.

What are the challenges they face with Da Vinci Group working together as husband and wife?

"We see each other every day, almost 24 hours and seven days a week. We hardly have any personal space and time," said Mrs Saravanan. But they've adapted to that.

"We used to argue about petty things, but now we make sure what we argue about is worth it," said Mr Saravanan, with a laugh.

amritak@sph.com.sg

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