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

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