Sunday, November 7, 2010

Shoutout: Get the Facts on Drugs

Today launches the first National Drug Facts Week challenging teens and adults who care about them to "shatter the myths" and learn the facts about drugs and addiction. In what may be a coincidence of timing, over the weekend, my daughter and I caught the Kennedy Center performance of the 2009 Tony award winning revival of the musical Hair, the myth-making 1968 Broadway musical that rocked the country with its portrayal of America’s rebellious youth. With its “peace, love and pot” philosophy, and youth revolt against the war in Vietnam, Hair captured a sense of American values gone off-track and a growing "Generation Gap" between young people and their parents.

In 1968, for the first time on stage, theatre-goers witnessed drug use onstage to the accompaniment of the drug anthem, “Hashish”, in what may be the most comprehensive musical index of illicit substances known at the time:

APC, alcohol
cigarettes, shoe polish, cough syrup, peyote
Equanil, dexamyl, camposine, chemadrine,
Thorazine, trilafon, dexadrine, benzedrine, methedrine,

It was a time of innocence and ignorance over what repeated drug use could do to your health - beyond sending users into psychedelic spasm. And, since this was an era before the emergence of the AIDS virus, no thought to what health risks might come from engaging in sex under the influence of drugs. The world of the ‘60s was a very different place from today.

The drug culture is still with us in 2010, and, arguably today doesn't have much to do with freedom, love or rebellion against the establishment. The stresses in our world, our schools, our families and communities, contribute to an atmosphere where "escape" sounds like an easier choice than facing stressful realities. In a media culture that invades our brains 24/7, young people need only tune into MTV or iTunes to hear – and experience - ample drug-inspired references composed to a rap, rock or pop beat.

A big difference today is that we know so much more about drugs, how they influence the brain, how young people’s brains are developing, and the effects that drugs can have to hijack healthy brain development.

Unfortunately, in the 21st century, growth of prescription drug abuseopioids (painkillers) and stimulants (prescribed to treat the symptoms of ADHD). These drugs are often found in family medicine cabinets, or bought, begged or stolen from friends who use them safely under a doctor’s care. Though not "illegal", they also alter the way the brain functions. When used as prescribed, Rx drugs are safe and effective. When you use them in ways your doctor hasn't sanctioned -- say, to stay awake, study, party, or relax -- the effect can be quite different and lead to abuse and addiction.

The famous Harvard Professor and Psychologist Timothy Leary's crafted a catchy message to young people of the '60s, "Turn on, tune in and drop out," by experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, and so creating the drug myth that recreational use of drugs was a plus. But today, we know so much more about what drug abuse can do to disrupt people's lives.

This week, you have the opportunity to get smart about what drugs might do, before you act. Learn the facts about drugs and addiction, then think twice.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Your Brain on Art

Imagine riffing on a mini-keyboard while immobilized in a tube that’s taking pictures of your brain. That’s what jazz bassist Mike Pope and other musicians have been doing to participate in Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist Dr. Charles Limb’s novel experiment to capture the brain on jazz.

Call it intuition, creative instinct, or "getting into the zone", but science is finding that artists brains work differently when they are in the creative act, and that they may, in turn have a feel for how their art will resonate in people's brains.

Call it instinctive neuroscience creative people seem attuned from the outset to tap into a social reserve of emotion and universal understanding. With artists holding such a head start, where do neuroscientists find the neuroagency that can help advance understanding of where we find creativity in the brain and what purposes it serves?

That was one underlying question during a lively converation with jazz musicians Pat Metheny and Mike Pope and otolaryngologist Dr. Charles Limb participating in a unique conference on "Perceptual Neuroscience and Aesthetics” on October 20 in Baltimore. The conference, at the American Visual Arts Museum, was filled to capacity with more than 300 attendees curious to explore how – and why – we respond to art, music, dance and drama. And to learn a little more about the brains of those people driven to create.

Are our brains hard-wired for Beethoven? What about Dr. Dre? Do mirror neurons attune to faces, such as the larger-than-life canvases by painter William Stoehr, and what emotions does it evoke in people? Stoehr pays most attention to the eyes of his models - reproducing them to draw us closely into the mind of his portraits. He highlights these black and white images with a splash of red, a touch of yellow. And much of the rest of the painting is more suggestion than explicit representation. Yet, he notes, that people who see his work believe that the eye, the ear, the chin is complete. The viewer's eye fills in what it expects to see, even when there is merely hinted at, in fact.

The former National Geographic photographer is exploring this theme on Facebook

The science of creativity
Science, technology, engineering, math and medicine – form a core of what might be called “left-brained” occupations – society recognizes the value of these roles through investment in education and reward in the workplace. Those possessing these functions in high degree are highly valued members of society: finding root causes and statistical bases for societal problems, creating living and working environments, curing disease. All these advance evolution of our species: inventing new treatments, technological advances, shelter, safety, defense. In short, these capabilities are fundamental to human survival.

Ars Artis
Bach might not save a life. Picasso never built a house. Although Doris Lessing, in a prolific career that has continued her publishing well into her 90s, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007, it is doubtful that her most notable works, including The Golden Notebook, ever cured a reader. Throughout the millennia, artists have been alternatively ostracized and embraced, reviled and worshiped. But always, they have been seen as “different”, or outside the norm.

To glean art's ancient roots,listen to the tone of a 9000-year old Chinese flute here:

Poets, musicians, artists and writers, on the other hand, serve no noticeable function in preserving the species. The results of creativity serve less as tools of physical survival, but more in evolving the social and emotional capacity of society.

Neuroscience advances have begun to demonstrate that areas of the prefrontal cortex linked with self-expression and inhibiting censoring brain functions are active in artists in the process of creation, showing much different brain activation during periods of intense creativity, like improvisation. Measuring perception in the brain – vision, hearing, processing information – ties the neural output of the creative process into the realms of scientific understanding.

Science can illuminate art through its own creative explorations of what makes us pursue and consume art – is art its own reward?

What’s going on here?

In addition to an unusually articulate complement of left-brain and right-brained speakers, the conference drew from a disparate group – scientists, teachers, artists, writers, architects and musicians, all of whom might speak distinct languages. The stovepipes in our culture keep artists in their studios and scientists in their labs, and rarely the twain shall meet. Yet with the vernacular of hearing and seeing - the universal languages gleaned through the arts and beginning to be understood by neuroscience, each group might draw understanding to enhance their own work.

Is there a way to keep the channels open and engaged? How can we sustain such cross-fertilization of ideas in a society structured to reward specialization? What does the artistically creative mind conceive of during the act of creation? How does science measure the output? How does the process - from idea to output – unfold? What role does intuition play? Knowledge? And what are those teachable insights – where we can infuse science with creativity and art with measurement? These are only a few of the questions that began to emerge in the conversations that ensued.

Perhaps the poets have intuited all along the metaphysical expression in their craft:

To see a world in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour. -William Blake