COVER IMAGE: WEIGHTED (2018-2020), BRONZE, ALISON LAM
SEISMA Magazine is published by Parabola Press. For general enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org Editor in Chief: Melissa Evans Guest Neuroscience Editor: Abhrajeet Roy Section Editors: Jenny Wong, Kate Tighe, Piergiorgio Ciarla, Fiona Cuningham, Jen Chau, Ella K Clarke, Paul Carey-Kent Sub Editor: Deborah Burnstone Editorial Contributors: Chrystalina Antoniades, Salil Patel, Lyndsey Winship, Andrew Dickson, Abhrajeet Roy, Dmitry Velmeshev, Catarina Carrao,
In this edition, we invite you to step into the mind of the creative.
EDITORIAL DR ABHRAJEET ROY
Burgeoning interest in the neuroscience of creativity, along with major advances in brain mapping technologies, has resulted in the proliferation of research at the nexus point between psychology, ar ts and cognitive science. The multifaceted nature of this research requires a strong interdisciplinary approach that blurs the lines between fields and challenges conventional paradigms and concepts. Indeed, many of the scientists interviewed in this issue are artists themselves, or artists, scientists, driven by the uniquely human pursuit to understand consciousness and creativity.
Sonia Klug, Erman Misirlisoy, Tsholananga Motuba, Angelica Kaufmann, Daniel Almaguer Buentello, Elizabeth Muehlfeld, Olivia Levine, Dwaynica Greaves, Andrew Curran Creative Direction: Melissa Evans
This drive to understand the neural underpinnings of the creative process is partially motivated by a desire to advance society’s understanding of the human animal in order to improve public health and well-being. However, in many cases, the pursuit is more primal, driven by more fundamental questions regarding consciousness, perception and awareness. Our continued enthusiasm for and pursuit of neurocreativity research will no doubt have implications for both society and the individual.
Art Direction: Jen Chau Video Editor: Aylin Ergeneli Image Editor: Jen Chau, Emma Levin Layout Design: Emma Levin, Toby Matthews (Holywell Press) Logo Design: Willy Lamers Printing: Holywell Press, Oxford Social Media Management: Annabel Cary Website Development: Ben Newton + David Ginn Website Management: David Ginn
Ultimately, this brave new world of research has been defined by major innovations in both methodologies and data analytics. For one thing, functional neuroimaging technologies have become significantly more accessible over the past two decades. Coupled with mind-bending new psychological approaches for studying different modes of creative thought, researchers and artists have been able to collaborate in ways that were never possible in the past. From developing brain-computer interfaces that generate art based on brainwaves, to optimizing the design of buildings and public spaces based on neuroaesthetics, the possibilities are seemingly endless. Indeed, it’s easy to get lost in the creative mind, so spend some time here. Have a look around. What you’ll find is sure to be intriguing …
FE ATU R E S WAVES OF CREATIVITY 'AGE OF ANXIETY' : BARBARA KENDRICK THE METRICS OF MUSE 'GRAFTING THE PUPIL TO THE FINGERTIP' : KYLIE LOCKWOOD
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SO U N D ARTS + M U S I C
SOUND + SYNAPSE SINGING IN THE BRAIN AND ALL THAT JAZZ 'PSYCHOSONIC GEO SOUNDSCAPE: LANDI' : JACKIE NEON
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VI S UAL FI N E ARTS ANGLES OF INTERSECTION THE BEAUTY OF BIOLOGY BAR EUREKA 'REFRACT' : SCOTT LAMBRIDIS
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'NODE 1' : TIM EDGAR 052 LOCUS OF CREATIVITY 053 'HUMAN BRAIN CELLS SILICON' : AUDREY RANGEL AGUIRRE 063
ARC H ITECTU R E + D E S I G N
THE NEUROARCHITECT CEREBRAL STRUCTURES 'THE LIES ARE COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE' : K DAY 'AUTISM, JOURNEY BEFORE DIAGNOSIS' : ALISON LAM 'BRAIN STEM' : CHERYL SAFREN
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FACTS ABOUT FICTION SCHOOL OF SLEEP A HYBRID COLLISION REASON + RHYME 'HAMLET/STARLET' : PETER BRUNO 'PSEUDOKNOTS' & 'STEMLOOPS' : LILY KOSMICKI
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TH E ATR E + DAN C E 096 099 104 108 109
MIND IN MOTION FOCUS + FLOAT UPONS THE STAGE 'INSTRUMENTAL' : SARAH WESTCOTT 'THOUGHT MRI 3' : JODY RASCH
FAS H I O N + B E AUT Y 110 114 117 120
ENCLOTHED COGNITION BLENDED NOT BROKEN CORTEX COUTURE 'BLIND SPOT' : MATT BRYDEN
121 'KNOWING ME KNOWING ME' : TALINE TEMIZIAN 122 EVOLVING THE CREATIVE 128 'BILL' + 'WILLIAM AND GEORGE' : WILLIAM FILLMORE
SC R E E N ARTS 130 COMEDY CIRCUITS 134 SCREEN SPARKS 137 EUREKA 138 'GENETIC TRACES I & II' : DEBORAH PEARSE 139 YOUR BRAIN ON (VIDEO)GAMES 142 'TRANSIENCE 6' : SUSAN ALDWORTH 143 'BICAMERAL TEEN AT THE MALL' : SUZANNE EDISON 144 'RETRACING MEMORIES' : NIKITA EPHANOV
C U LI NARY ARTS 145 GASTROPHYSICS 148 MADE UNDER THE INFLUENCE 150 HUNGRY EYES 154 MATTERS OF TASTE 157 ARTIST BIOGRAPHIES 162 REFERENCES 172 'COMIC STRIP' KATRIN BOEHM
THE NEUROSCIENCE OF CREATIVITY INTERVIEW
WAVES OF CREATIVITY JOHN KOUNIOS + ANNA ABRAHAM
Can eureka moments be measured? How do musicians improvise? Can we train ourselves to become more creative? And what is creativity, really? Anna Abraham and John Kounios, two leading researchers in the field, talk word puzzles and fMRI experiments, and reveal the burning questions they’d love to answer.
Anna Abraham is the E Paul Torrance Professor in Creativity and Gifted Education and Director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia. Her book The Neuroscience of Creativity was published in 2019. John Kounios is the Director of the PhD Program in Applied Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Drexel University, Philadelphia. He is co-author of The Eureka Factor: Creative Insights and the Brain, first published in 2015. We joined Abraham and Kounios to discuss enduring, current, and future trends in the field of neuroscience and creativity. Andrew Dickson: OK, let’s start with a difficult question, but an important one. How do you define creativity? Or, maybe more pertinently, how do neuroscientists define it?
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IN CONVERSATION WITH ANDREW DICKSON
Anna Abraham: In general, the definition that guides us is that an idea is creative if it contains at least two elements. One is originality: how novel or atypical or unique the response is. The second is some form of appropriateness or relevance. So an idea is said to be creative if it’s both original as well as appropriate to a particular context. Of course, there are lots of debates we can have about who defines what’s ‘original’ and what’s deemed as appropriate. But if you look up any paper in neuroscience, if they start with a definition, it will be that one (Abraham, 2018). Do you agree, John? John Kounios: I agree that’s the way the papers start, but I’m not sure I’m a big fan of that. In terms of defining creativity, you could say there are two approaches. One is philosophical – what is the
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reality or truth about what creativity is? That’s not necessarily useful for scientific research where we want a definition that will carry the research forward, and which suggests avenues of further empirical study and theory-building. So, we need a scientific definition. Let’s start with the appropriateness part, which I don’t really like. I see why it’s there, because if you have a psychotic individual who splurges out wild associations, in one sense that’s creative, but in another sense it’s gibberish. However, there are many instances where, for example, a mathematician may come up with a theorem or proof that seems to have no relevance to anything, but perhaps a hundred years later someone will find an application for it. So, was it appropriate at the time? Furthermore, some ideas can be creative even if they don’t work at all. They can be thought of as ‘brilliant failures’. AD: Do you want to come back on that, Anna? AA: I think John and I are in the same camp in many ways, in that we study brain operations that have some relevance to the creative process. Regarding the definition, I do think it’s important to have one; otherwise we’re talking about all sorts of discrete phenomena that we wouldn’t know how to relate to each other. I think the onus is on researchers to really talk fully about what aspect of the definition they’re getting at in their studies. It is useful to compare the situation to other fields. Let’s take defining what memory is.
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Am I talking about remembering faces? Am I talking about remembering how to ride a bike? Am I talking about a memory I have of my childhood? All of these are different ways in which memory instantiates itself. The working definition of memory – retaining information over time – is the overarching concept that brings it all together. But unless we use it meaningfully to tell us something about the phenomenon itself, it’s not going to be very useful. AD: If I’ve got this right, researchers used to believe that there was one big, solid thing called ‘memory’, but the more work that’s been done over the years, the more we’ve realised that memory can be many different things at once, and works in many different ways. Are there similarities with the neuroscience of creativity, too? How has the field changed over the years you’ve been working in it? JK: The field of neuroscience of creativity is really only perhaps fifteen years old, give or take. It’s still the Wild West in the sense that we don’t all agree on the definitions, the experimental paradigms, or even totally agree on the phenomena. That said, I think it’s starting to gel. Researchers are beginning to home in on standard paradigms and analyses. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing is upended in the next five to ten years. It’s very hard to predict at this point. AD: Is that your sense, too, Anna? That there’s still a lot to play for?
Aha moments tend to be more accurate than analytic solutions
AA: Yes, the neuroscientific lens is a relatively new one to apply to creativity. There was always an interest in trying to understand it in relation to some aspect of biology. But the tools only really began to be used in a mass way in the mid-1990s and the early 2000s. The limitations were partly technological. We didn’t really have the facilities to look at creativity until comparatively recently. The other thing that strikes me as having changed is that this research area is so much more popular than it was in the past. We have neuroscience students who are eager to do creativity studies now. Even ten years ago, that was unheard of: we’ve gone from being the freaks in the hallway to being ever more mainstream. I think this is very advantageous, because it means a lot more people are working on a lot more areas of creativity, and there’ll be many more advances. What we’re going to discover over the next twenty years is going to be amazing, I think. Why that matters is because we need to try and figure out new ways of assessing this very complicated phenomenon. We’re only getting at a tiny part of it so far. Creativity in the arts, creativity in the sciences, creativity across people’s lifespan – we need to know a lot more about it all. How do we understand the commonalities and differences between literary creativity, musical creativity, and scientific creativity, say? Should they be viewed as separate disciplines in their own right, or branches of the same tree?
AD: Can you talk a little about the tools you’re using currently? Some neuroscientists use electroencephalography (EEG) to study brain activity, a technique that has been around for decades, but people are now also using functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to look at creativity. Is that correct? JK: Well, the first decision to make about what tools to use depends on what you have access to. I don’t currently have direct access to fMRI, for instance. I started using EEG many years ago when I was working in another field, so I carried that technique over, trying to use it in new ways. EEG is really good at telling you when something’s happening in the brain. It also gives you some information about where things are happening in the brain, but not with the same level of precision as a tool like fMRI. However, EEG can also tell you about the different frequency components of neurons firing across the cortex, which fMRI can’t do. Both EEG and fMRI are very valuable approaches. Ideally you should use a variety of techniques, each of which has different strengths and limitations. AD: How about you, Anna? Have you focused on specific tools, or likewise used whatever you have access to? AA: I’ve used whatever was available in whichever place I was. Like John, I’ve used EEG, but I’ve used it mainly to assess ‘evoked potentials’ or ERPs. These are time-locked neural
responses that are generated in direct response to a specific event. For instance, when I encounter an idea that I experience as being both original and appropriate, a unique neural signature is elicited; an early ERP that indexes that I am processing a conceptual combination that is wholly novel to me (originality), and a later ERP that indexes that I recognise that this new conceptual combination is not nonsense but is viable, and can therefore be integrated into my conceptual knowledge (appropriateness) (Kröger et al., 2013; Rutter et al., 2012). I also use fMRI, which allows you to get a much clearer idea of which parts of the brain are involved in a specific creative operation like conceptual expansion (Abraham et al., 2018). It is a very useful technique, but one that comes hand in hand with real challenges – the fact that creativity cannot be reliably elicited on cue, that subjects have to lie perfectly still and so on, makes it difficult when you’re designing experiments. So there are some tricky trade-offs. I’ve also taken a neuropsychological approach, studying people with certain types of brain injury (Abraham et al., 2012). If their lesions are limited to one or two parts of the brain, you can compare them to people who don’t have injuries, and look at their respective performance on creativity measures. For instance, I found evidence of a ‘double dissociation’ in relation to creative cognition and brain function. Patients with basal ganglia lesions – a clinical group known
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Some ideas can be creative even if they don’t work at all. They can be thought of as ‘brilliant failures’
to have distractibility as one of their core symptoms – were actually better than control neurotypical participants in overcoming the constraining influence of prior knowledge when generating new ideas. The opposite pattern of worse performance was found in patients with lesions in the parietal and temporal lobe regions, a clinical group known to have perseverative or repetitive responding as one of their core symptoms. Ultimately, it is worth noting that when you’re assessing creativity, the assumptions you make about which parts of the brain you’re interested in – whether you’re looking at individual areas, or networks of interests and how those work together dynamically – is not only limited by the neuroscientific methodology but also by the behavioural indices that you’re using. AD: As you were hinting there, Anna, one challenge for neuroscientists interested in creativity is the difficulty of designing experiments. Creativity isn’t just something we can switch on in the lab; it’s not on tap. John, could you talk us through some of the experiments you’ve set up? You’ve done some really fascinating research into so-called eureka or insight moments – the aha moments when a problem is solved or we suddenly work something out. How did you go about measuring these? JK: There are two main approaches. One is the standard lab approach: designing a task that a person can solve either creatively or analytically. You give a person little verbal puzzles, such as
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anagrams. A person can solve these puzzles by working out the answer in a very conscious, deliberate way or they can short-circuit that process by having an aha or eureka moment in which the solution pops into awareness, seemingly from nowhere. For example, in our first neuroimaging study we presented people with a series of verbal puzzles (Jung-Beeman et al., 2004). Each consisted of three words, such ‘pine/crab/sauce’. The subject’s job is to think of a fourth word that makes a compound or familiar phrase with each of the three problem words. In this case, the solution is ‘apple’, as in pineapple, crab apple, and apple sauce. If a subject is able to think of this solution, it could be because they deliberately tried out a variety of potential answers, such as ‘cone’ or ‘shell’, until they found the right answer. Alternatively, the solution may just pop into awareness as an aha moment. We asked them to tell us, problem by problem, which answers they derived consciously and deliberately and which just popped into awareness. That enabled us to analyse the brain activity for these two types of solutions separately. This revealed that aha moments were associated with a sudden burst of high-frequency brainwave activity in the brain’s right hemisphere. This worked well, but one limitation of the approach is that it relies on subjective reports: you have to assume that the person is able to distinguish between these two types of solution processes. Carola Salvi, a colleague at the University of Texas, has recently published research showing that a person’s eye activity can help differentiate this (Salvi et al., 2015, 2020). When a person has an insight, their pupils suddenly dilate, which you don’t find when they solve a problem consciously and deliberately. That’s a really exciting finding because it looks like an easily observed ‘biomarker’ of insight. Another approach which we’ve taken is not to try to produce creativity in the laboratory but to record ‘resting-state brain activity’ – what people are doing when they sit, relax, think about whatever they want. We then correlate that brain activity with their behaviour on a different day when they are performing a task (Kounios et al., 2008; Kounios & Beeman, 2009, 2014). So far, we found that a person’s resting-state brain activity can predict weeks in advance whether he or she will solve verbal puzzles either analytically, or by insight.
This resting-state activity is very consistent from session to session, suggesting that this is a cognitive trait: some people tend to be insightful thinkers, others tend to be analytical thinkers. We can predict that. I’m looking forward to extending that research to look at resting-state brain activity as a predictor of all kinds of creative behaviour outside the laboratory, whether it’s musical, literary, mathematical, and so forth. AD: John, the research you’ve done into eureka moments also showed something surprising – that relying on those sorts of intuitive moments, rather than slowly working a problem out, often generates more accurate results. Do we know why that is? JK: That’s true. People are generally more accurate when they have an aha moment, rather than working out the answer – at least in laboratory research that has used four different types of tests. I think the reason is that when people work things out in a slow, conscious, deliberate way, they make errors – they get sloppy, they become tired, or they just don’t want to bother checking what they’ve done. However, when you have an aha moment, the unconscious mental processes that produced it don’t care about your deadlines or whether you are tired. Your brain processes that information and produces the solution, and when those unconscious mental processes run to completion, they dump the solution into awareness. This can certainly produce errors or false insights, but in the kinds of tests we’ve looked at, aha moments tend to be more accurate than analytic solutions. AD: Anna, what’s your perspective on that? Does it resonate with anything you’ve studied? I saw you nodding as John was speaking… AA: The reason why I was nodding is because I was thinking about problem-solving and gestalt perspectives, an approach which encourages us to examine how we perceive the world in terms of general principles. Gestalt psychologists were the first ones to really look at problem-solving and consider the phenomenological side of that experience, everything coming together suddenly – seemingly from nowhere. The whole is made up of more than its parts, in effect. One of the reasons that those solutions are more accurate, it seems to me, is also because of that feeling of elegance. That sense one gets when everything just clicks into place: the puzzle is unexpectedly completed in an instant. That’s a phenomenological, aesthetic experience, which is part of the insight moment. These are the emotive aspects of the creative experience that we’re only starting to get to terms with. AD: There seems to be a link to improvisation here: that sense we have of responding in the moment, not always knowing why. That reminds me of another piece of research you’ve done, John, into the way that jazz musicians improvise (Rosen et al., 2020). You studied 32 musicians divided into two groups – one cohort comprised relative novices with limited experience of improvising, while the other cohort was much more experienced. Then you hooked them up to an EEG as they improvised, and discovered that quite different parts of the brain became active in each group: the experienced players tended to rely on the left side of their brain, while the less experienced ones used the right brain more. Why was that, do you think? JK: Less experienced jazz musicians work things out while performing – ‘I’ll try this now, I’ll do that, that didn’t work, I’ll correct it.’ Whereas for musicians who have been doing this for decades, all that becomes baked in – it becomes internalised, largely unconscious. They can just turn on the tap and let it flow.
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There are different parts of the brain that subserve those two different types of creativity. In the novices, we find more frontal activity – specifically in the right frontal lobe. In people who are very experienced at jazz improvisation, it’s more of the left posterior area of the brain. This fits with an idea by a neuropsychologist named Elkhonon Goldberg, who has argued that the difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere is that the right hemisphere processes novelty – situations with which you don’t have a lot of experience (Goldberg & Costa, 1981). With practice, those processes gradually move to the left hemisphere. That theory has largely been ignored in neuroscience of creativity research. But I think that these new findings suggest we dust it off and have a closer look at it. The idea that the right hemisphere of the brain plays a special role in creativity goes back decades and became cemented in the popular mind with the phrases ‘right-brain thinker’, which refers to people who are supposedly creative, and ‘left-brain thinker’, referring to those who are supposedly analytical thinkers. The reality has proven to be more complicated and harder to pin down scientifically. A substantial amount of research supports the idea that the right hemisphere is specialised for processing ‘remote associations’ – that is, associations between ideas that are not strongly connected – and that the left hemisphere is specialised for ‘close associations’, which are strong links between ideas. For example, if I say the word ‘water’, the first words that spring to mind (the close associations) are words like ‘drink’, ‘glass’, and so forth. These associations are processed primarily in the left hemisphere. But the right hemisphere would produce remote associations such as ‘water table’ and ‘heavy water’.
One limitation of this view is that not all types of creativity spring from remote associations between separate ideas. A eureka moment that provides the solution to an anagram is one example. Another limitation is that, although there’s evidence for the idea that people differ in the extent to which they rely on one hemisphere or the other, this hasn’t yet been clearly demonstrated to be related to individual differences in creativity. Finally, getting back to Elkhonon Goldberg’s idea about the hemispheres, it may be that the difference between remote and close associations may be reducible to familiarity. Perhaps the left hemisphere processes very familiar associations (the ones we call close associations), and the right hemisphere processes less familiar ones (the ones we call remote associations). With regard to our work on jazz improvisation, the novices relied primarily on the right hemisphere, presumably because improvisation was not yet familiar to them. The experienced performers relied on the left hemisphere because of their many years of experience as performers. There is much work to be done here. AD: Anna, to ask you a question you probably get asked about 25 times a week – is there anything in your research that suggests how to improve your creativity? Any hints or ideas for how we can sharpen our own creative skills? What should we be doing, or not doing? AA: I do get asked this a lot! And just as there are many different kinds of creativity, there are many different approaches one can take. First, there’s the boring answer no one wants to hear, but which is unfortunately true: anyone who works in the creative arts will tell you point-blank that the more
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Creativity isn’t something that only a few people need or have. It’s in all of us
you work at your craft, the better you will be. It’s like any muscle: you have to exercise it to strengthen it. Getting better at being creative in any domain necessarily involves discipline and applying yourself. We know that from any kind of training, cognitive training as well as physical training. If you want to be a writer, you have to start writing. Regularly. The more you exercise that part of your mind, the better you will get. But I also think it’s really important to reflect on what people mean when they use the word ‘creativity’, because it means different things in different contexts. It’s not necessarily about improving longterm creativity; for someone working in an office job, they might be trying to boost their creativity in the moment to solve a specific problem. There are lots of strategies there. One is to get into what people sometimes call an ‘incubation’ phase, to allow generativity to take root. There’s some work that shows that walking can be useful, for instance: there’s something about temporarily moving away from the problem. Letting your mind work, unimpeded by your own conscious cogitations, seemingly like static at the back of your mind – that seems to help reach insights and solutions. This idea is very old; people have been talking about it at least since Henri Poincaré in 1904, if not longer (Ghiselin, 1985). Other people have suggested that disrupting the way you normally think is a good way to try and generate creativity. There’s some work by Rémi Radel that shows that if you push people, overburden their attentional systems, and then you make them apply themselves to creative tasks, they get better (Radel et al., 2015). It seems to be the case that putting yourself in a position in which you will be pushed to do something different from the usual tends to abet creativity. It doesn’t necessarily help you to reach very original responses, but it does seem to influence the number of ideas you will have – your fluency, so to speak.
There are other methods that people have used to improve creativity, like ingesting drugs and alcohol. But all of the empirical work in this area to date has shown very limited and mixed effects. JK: Could I add something to that? I remember years ago, a US government agency solicited grant proposals for techniques to make their intelligence analysts more creative. OK , that makes sense. But there’s another approach to take: instead of trying to squeeze more creativity out of the same people, why not just hire really creative people? People laud creativity, but they tend to be afraid of creative people, or don’t trust them. That’s why they often hire less creative people and then try to push them to produce creative ideas. A lot of people fear creativity and don’t give it the respect that it deserves. AA: I think what people need to know is that there’s no shortcut, no silver bullet to being creative, whatever we mean by that. Because creativity is typically seen as so mystical and magical, the idea is that if you push the right button, all your creativity is going to be unleashed. Unfortunately it’s not like that. That is not the way our minds work. Really, it’s like any other ability: if you want to improve your ability to shoot, you have to keep going to the shooting range and practising your aim. AD: Can we turn to the future? What sort of things would you each like to see happening in the field during the next ten or fifteen years? Is there a specific question you would really love to see answered, or a mystery you’d love to solve? JK: I’ll toss off a few things that are outside my current expertise. One is the genetics of creativity. To what extent is the ability to be creative inherited, and to what extent is it something that you develop from experience and training? What’s the boundary between nature and nurture here? Another is psychopharmacology: to what extent do
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drugs, chemicals, even food, influence creativity? There are a lot of anecdotal reports, but very little rigorous research. One area that I’m just starting to look into is the brain’s reward system. We just published a paper in which we found that, while everyone has aha moments, a subset of people also have an extra brain response – we see activity in the brain’s reward system, the same system that responds when you eat delicious foods or take addictive drugs (Oh et al., 2020). It appears that some people experience these neural rewards, and that this motivates them to select creative tasks and creative occupations. Over time, this builds experience. It’s an intrinsic motivation to be creative, which leads to greater and greater creativity. That’s an area that I’m going to be focusing a lot of my research on.
What are the factors that impede generativity? How can we protect and improve our own creative capacities throughout our lives? What are the predictors of creative ability over a person’s life? We are already starting to get insights in this direction. For instance, a new study that will be published soon (Asquith et al., in press) shows that when examining multiple individual and environmental predictors of creativity in adolescents, the personality trait of openness to experience as well as the level of engagement in creative hobbies were strong predictors of the capacity to generate highly original ideas. So I’d like to push for an agenda that’s a bit broader. If we focus mainly on people who are extremely ‘creative’, at the top of their game, the middle ground gets lost. I would love to see the study of creativity develop from something that’s seen aaQs niche or specialist. In actuality it is quite fundamental to the way we design education curricula, think about government policy, everything. Creativity isn’t something that only a few people need or have. It’s in all of us. And the fact that it’s often stifled or unexplored or unrecognised means that we’re left with a lot of problems, both on an individual and at a societal level. Only by nurturing this ability – by getting people to figure out what’s unique about their own creativity and in what ways they can contribute and realise their creative potential – will we really break new ground. Not just for individuals, but for the whole of society.
There’s no shortcut, no silver bullet to being creative
AD: How about you, Anna? What would you love to see happen in the next decade or so? AA: For me, there are a couple of things I want to get a deeper grasp of. I think the distinction between ‘creative’ and ‘uncreative’ people isn’t a useful one; I see creativity as a very fundamental capacity that all of us possess to a lesser or greater extent. I want to look at this more closely developmentally and across lifespan, starting from a very young age all the way to late adulthood. What’s the trajectory of this immensely valuable capacity? What drives individual differences in creativity?
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AGE OF ANXIETY (2020), DIGITAL COLLAGE, 14X11”
UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON INTERVIEW
THE METRICS OF MUSE JESUS CRUZ-GARZA
Neuroaesthetics is gaining momentum. Multi-disciplinary projects between neuroscientists and creative practitioners are helping to further understanding of brain activity during the creative process. But how might these metrics of creativity advance the field of neuroaesthetics and influence the arts?
Neuroaesthetics entwines neuroscientific principles and methodologies with theories, hypotheses and discoveries about aesthetics (Abraham, 2018; Contreras-Vidal, Kever, et al., 2019). To begin our exploration we can ask; ‘why do we find things beautiful?’ and ‘can we find an answer through examining brain activity?’ These two questions have been expanded and developed into numerous hypotheses by scientists trying to find answers across many creative disciplines. They have meticulously broken down the creative process to reveal new facts about interactions between humans and art. These neuroaesthetic investigations have opened doors for groundbreaking research in labs across the world. Of particular interest here is the University of Houston Non-invasive Brain Machine Interface Laboratory, directed by Prof Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal. The primary focus of the centre is 1) to work with industries to generate design technologies that help people with disabilities and 2) to work at the interface of art and
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IN CONVERSATION WITH DWAYNICA GREAVES
science. Researchers are interested in how the brain works when creating and experiencing art in real-life settings. Contreras-Vidal states, ‘… findings such as these would lead to an understanding of the individuality of our brains’. Numerous collaborations with creative professionals from fields such as dance, music, creative writing, and culinary arts have been the focus of his research over the past decade. The lab is known for its innovative work using devices that enable researchers to take their investigations outside of the laboratory space. The main device which enables them to do so is mobile electroencephalography (mobile EEG), a portable and non-invasive EEG device that measures wholebrain brain electrical activity in real-time. When conducting empirical research in cognition, ecological validation is extremely important, as researchers want their findings to reflect everyday situations and experiences. However, due to methodological limitations, most studies of cognition have been conducted inside laboratories. Although
careful curation of laboratory spaces has been made to increase the validity of previous research, moving from the lab to the field has been critical for investigating the mysteries of neuroaesthetics. Creating and experiencing art has a huge element of embodiment – you are undoubtedly ‘there’. Both creation and experience are journeys that occur in unique spaces. Equipment such as mobile EEG allows us as researchers to access the ‘there’. To gain more insight into innovations that have taken place at the centre, we interviewed Dr Jesus Cruz-Garza who has worked alongside Prof Contreras-Vidal. Cruz-Garza is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Design and Augmented Intelligence Laboratory at the College of Human Ecology, Cornell University. His present research focuses on virtual reality, augmented reality, and biometrically controlled ambient environments. Dwaynica Greaves: First, could you describe your journey into neuroaesthetics? How has your engineering background helped you approach the field of neuroscience? Jesus Cruz-Garza: I was interested in brain-computer interfaces and mobile neuroscience, and even more so, in neuroscience conducted in real-world settings. Back in 2014, our lab at the University of Houston (UH lab) was leading developments in this field, and it was very exciting to be part of that momentum. This was my first year of graduate school and it was a rich time of learning for me. My background is in Engineering Physics, with experience in signal processing, mathematical modelling and simulation, and applying machine-learning techniques to physiological data. In the Non-Invasive Brain-Machine Interface Systems Laboratory, under the supervision of Prof Contreras-Vidal, I developed my knowledge of EEG data analysis. It was also at this time that Dario Robleto, a Houston-based artist, approached our lab as part of his research for his exhibition at the Menil Collection, ‘The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed’. He was exploring the history of the electrocardiogram and electroencephalogram, and our lab fit as a
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The neuroscience of the human creative process has been studied since the 1950s
natural connection with the public because of our pioneering efforts in mobile EEG. We found that the methods we helped develop in the lab provided an ideal testing platform for neuroscience in the real world, with a particular interest in artistic perception (Kontson et al., 2015). I took a leadership role in this project and Dario became a mentor to me. We collaborated by collecting EEG data from individuals during their visit to Dario’s museum exhibit. At the same time the collaboration developed into an effective informal neuroscience learning platform for families in the Houston area. In 2017 I met Cristina Rivera Garza, a well known Mexican author, who was interested in the question of writing as a bodily and social experience. She was interested in exploring, through physiological data, the experience of creative writing workshops for students, and the effect of physically interacting with space and communities. Naturally, these questions from the field of creative writing fit well with my research interests and we developed a collaboration. The success of our research on the human creative process in real-world settings stems critically from multidisciplinary collaborations: engineers and neuroscientists working together with artists to investigate pertinent philosophical inquiries in context-relevant, authentic settings. DG: You stated that you have an interest in neuroscientific studies being conducted in real-world settings. What is the significance of moving out of the lab and into real-world research?
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JGC: The neuroscience of the human creative process has been studied since the 1950s, predominantly by providing psychometric tests to participants inside the laboratory. The tests would provide a metric for a component of the creative process such as divergent thinking, convergent thinking, semantic associations, and even artistic performance. However, these studies looked into a very constrained view of the human creative process and its components. The human creative process does not often happen in isolation or in time-constrained settings. To expand our knowledge of how the human creative process naturally happens and the brain dynamics associated with creativity, we have to move to real-world settings. Notably, mobile brain-body imaging technology enables, for the first time in the study of the human creative process, the possibility of studying creativity in freely-behaving, natural settings (Contreras-Vidal et al., 2017). It allows for the study of spontaneous creativity (Cruz-Garza, Chatufale, et al., 2019), temporally extended forms of creativity (Cruz-Garza, Kopteva, et al., 2019), motorically complex forms of creativity (Cruz-Garza et al., 2014), and socially driven forms of creation and expression (Cruz-Garza, 2019). DG: So conducting effective neuroscientific studies in the real world is dependent upon meticulous methodological design. Given the importance of both objective and subjective properties when studying neuroaesthetics, can you explain how your team developed novel methodologies to explore creativity? How did the team balance these objective and subjective methodologies?
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JGC: The methodologies of my research involve an educational component for the participants, as setting up the EEG cap takes time and adds a layer of complexity to the otherwise unobtrusive activities performed by the participants recruited in the community. At museums, we set up our EEG caps outside the exhibits where we conduct the experiment and encourage the participants to look at their brain activity and discuss it with the research staff. In the creative writing workshops, we measure the writers’ brain activity at the beginning and end of the semester and track their brain activity as they physically interact with their community. We include location tracking and demographic information questionnaires. We take a week to train our research staff to set up EEG caps in under fifteen minutes. As part of the EEG data analysis, we start from the hypotheses proposed in collaboration with artists on the team. We perform band-power analysis, connectivity analysis, and source reconstruction for particular creative performance or perception tasks. The creative tasks have a subjective component. We base them on current creative practices, guided by the artists, and describe our findings. We then engage in conversation with the artists about the findings, and report the observations. We hope that the observations can complement artists’ and philosophers’ theories on the human creative process.
DG: As you mentioned earlier, Prof Contreras-Vidal’s lab pioneered using mobile EEG to conduct research in the field. In your paper on mobile EEG in an art museum setting you highlight the cons of these devices (Cruz-Garza et al., 2017). Did the team develop any mobile EEG devices in the UH lab? If so, do they differ from those currently available on the market? Furthermore, have there been any improvements post-2017 in mobile EEG technology? JGC: We did not develop the EEG devices that we used in our research at the UH lab, although after I graduated Prof Contreras-Vidal has taken to that research in collaboration with EEG companies. Pioneering a research field involves taking risks, especially with emerging technology. Mobile EEG technology enables data collection in authentic settings, but due to the amount of motion and other sources of ‘noise’ that would not be common in a tightly controlled laboratory setting, we preferred to focus on EEG recordings that
contained data of sufficient quality to be compared with typical laboratory-based EEG recordings. In our 2017 paper we reported on our experience of implementing EEG technology in real-world settings in an effort to help the community understand the limitations of the current technology and address them (Cruz-Garza et al., 2017). We learned a lot with this paper, which enabled us to develop strategies to significantly reduce the amount of data loss. In subsequent research projects that are in the data analysis phase, we have tested hundreds of subjects at museums. Additionally, we obtained the first long-term EEG data recording (over 18 months) to explore an artist’s authentic creative process (Cruz-Garza, Kopteva, et al., 2019). DG: Are there any significant differences between what mobile EEG can tell us about creativity as compared to non-mobile EEG? JGC: Mobile EEG provides neuroscience with a tool, which for the first time gives us the
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possibility to look at certain aspects of the human creative process that have not been previously explored in the literature (Abraham, 2018; Cruz-Garza, Chatufale, et al., 2019), including spontaneous creativity (Cruz-Garza, Chatufale, et al., 2019); temporally extended forms of creativity (Cruz-Garza, Kopteva, et al., 2019); and motorically complex forms of creativity (Cruz-Garza et al., 2014). DG: Could it be argued that the human creative process includes subconscious processes? What does EEG tell us about the ratio of conscious to subconscious processes in creativity? JGC: Neuroscientific studies have exclusively studied conscious creative thought using psychometric tests, a specific task, or creative performance, all in a limited amount of time to engage consciousness in the creative process. The first 18-month long-term study of the human creative process was with an artist working on a new installation project where we collected data throughout (Cruz-Garza, Kopteva, et al., 2019); it is currently in its data analysis stage. This dataset includes both conscious and unconscious periods for creative thought. We are discussing approaches to address the question of the incubation period of creative ideas. Additionally, we will make the dataset available to the community, including video annotations and diary entries, so that other groups can approach the question from other perspectives. DG: On the topic of datasets, let’s delve into the findings of some of your studies. In the first study your team used the Exquisite Corpse game [developed by the Surrealists, similar to the drawing consequences game] to investigate artistic creativity (CruzGarza, Chatufale, et al., 2019). Importantly, this game enabled each art form to have its own methodological adaptation. What does this tell us about the future of researching across performing and creative arts? Are there additional methodologies that may benefit from such collaborative studies? JGC: The Exquisite Corpse experiment was developed in collaboration with professional visual artists, in an effort to have an experimental design that gets close to an authentic collaborative, improvisational creative experience. We could easily expand it to other artistic domains other than the visual arts, including dance, writing, music, and culinary arts. For each of these modalities, we engaged in discussions with the artists themselves to develop an analysis methodology that aligns with a particular question in the artistic domain analysed. The limitations of the technology and experimental paradigm are also discussed extensively. We aim to contribute to the discussion on artistic theory and practice, with physiological data and observations. Any conclusions are taken in collaboration with experts in the creative field. DG: You have also collaborated with creative writing and culinary arts. Can you tell us more about your research and findings in these areas? JGC: In our pilot data experiment to analyse the preparation and generation stages of the writing process, we found that there were
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This dataset includes both conscious and unconscious periods for creative thought
changes in information transfer from sensory-integration areas of the brain to higher cognitive processing and decision-making (Cruz-Garza, 2019). When the students were working on their drafts of creative texts (generation phase), there was more information transfer from sensory integration regions to decision-making areas. This suggests that the students were re-evaluating and reconstructing the sensory experience from the earlier preparation phase, when they interacted with their community prior to drafting the text. In another experiment we compared creative improvisational texts from before and after a creative writing workshop (Cruz-Garza, 2019). We
found significantly stronger connectivity patterns from sensory integration areas to decision-making areas after the workshop had taken place. This reinforced the findings from the previous experiment and provided data that supported the effectiveness of a creative writing workshop where the students were required to physically experience and interact with the space they were writing about, its community members, and its language. DG: What similarities and what differences have you found in the creative process across the various creative realms you have worked with? Additionally, are the neural mechanisms different when
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one is performing alone versus performing with others? What are the neural differences between creating alone versus creating with others? JGC: Overall, we found that ideation, exploration, and observation in creative execution tasks can be characterised by a state of long-range cortico-cortical communication between multisensory integration brain areas (parietal and temporal regions) and high-order execution and planning areas of the brain (frontal regions). The differences between creative fields depended on the sensory process integration taking place: visual and spatial planning for the visual arts, semantic processing and spatial planning in creative writing, and
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Preliminary results suggest that there is synchronisation between the brain activity of the participants
motor region activation across creative processes. We see similar patterns in expressive movement performance. There are also individual differences between participants. To address these differences, we need a large enough sample from participants with variables, e.g. their first language, their expertise in the artistic field, hours of sleep, etc. We are currently conducting a study with children’s creative improvisational works of art at the Children’s Museum of Houston, which will provide the numbers to address questions of individuality in the creative process. With regards to performing alone and together, we are currently analysing data of participants engaging in creative interactions together. The preliminary results suggest that there is synchronisation between the brain activity of the participants (Cruz-Garza, Acharya, et al., 2019), which is particularly higher when a new idea is introduced (musical, verbal, etc). DG: From the perspective of a scientist, how would you describe the experience of collaborating with creatives? JGC: Working with creatives has been a very enriching experience in several ways. The most important part of the experience has been to design experiments and reports that have a significant bearing on neuroscience, engineering, and artistic fields. This involves developing a common language for clear communication between the fields of inquiry.
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As an intellectual experience, it has been very rewarding. It has helped us refine hypotheses, and make evident the current limitations of mobile brainbody imaging studies in the area. This is important because it allows us to design experiments that address the limitations. Some of these outstanding limitations that I hope the field starts to explore are: the lived, emotional, and experiential aspects of art, and how these reflect the values of the society within which the art is created. The process of making art does not happen in isolation. Rather, it is a human social endeavour that constructs meaning between individuals and societies. Much like science! It is always a stimulating conversation. DG: So, how can creatives apply your findings to their practices? JGC: One of the main applications I see from our research findings is in education. In creative writing, for example, we found that there was more transfer of information from sensory integration to decision-making areas after physically and socially experiencing the spaces and the community that the students were writing about. So now we have B rain
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evidence of what cognitive processes are enhanced by this philosophy of writing in the community. In the future, by tracking brain activity in real-time, we could assess how a student is learning a new creative skill, and adjust interventions to enhance the development of that skill. The findings can, and have been used, for artistic performance as well. In 2015 we worked with Becky Valls, a dance professor at UH, to map her brain activity to the lights in the Quintero Theatre (Glentzer, 2015). She was able to control the lights as she performed an emotional dance piece. Eric Todd, who is also involved in The Nahual Project, created a kinetic sculpture, in which ceiling panels move, change colours, and create sound from the brain activity of a user (Todd et al., 2019). The room space changes, guided by the brain activity of a person wearing a wireless EEG device. DG: Are there any areas that have the potential for further research in understanding creativity? What’s next for you? JGC: Now I am working at Cornell University with Prof Saleh Kalantari, developing metrics to evaluate user experience in built and virtual reality environments. We are developing a tool based on physiological data to aid designers and artists through evidence. We are evaluating design and architectural elements in people’s experience of a space, and working to provide real-time feedback so that in the future, the space can adapt to the needs of the user. And please tell us about the newly published book that you collaborated on with Prof Contreras-Vidal and the team. The book is titled Mobile Brain-Body Imaging and the Neuroscience of Art, Innovation and Creativity and it incorporates original texts from artists, scientists, engineers, and educators (Contreras-Vidal, Robleto, et al., 2019). It is a unique collaboration across disciplines, emerging from the 2016 and 2017 conferences of the same name. The book highlights the importance of convergent research in neuroaesthetics, seeking a common language to translate neuroscientific experimental designs and findings to contribute to our understanding of the human creative process. The extensive debate emerging from intellectual discussions between the fields fuels the content of the book and provides a path going forward by bridging communication between artists and scientists.
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GRAFTING THE PUPIL TO THE FINGERTIP (DETAIL) (2016) KYLIE LOCKWOOD
EYE STYLUS (2016) DRAWINGS MADE USING EYE-TRACKING TECHNOLOGY BY DARYN R BLANC-GOLDHAMMER AND KYLIE LOCKWOOD
GRAFTING THE PUPIL TO THE FINGERTIP (2016) KYLIE LOCKWOOD
STUDIO AT CALDERA ARTS RESIDENCY IN SISTERS, OREGON (2016) KYLIE LOCKWOOD
MUSIC + SOUND INTERVIEW
SOUND + SYNAPSE DANIEL LEVITIN
What do music and hard drugs have in common? How do musical key and genre affect our brains? Why do we dance and what lies behind musical creativity? These, and more, are all questions neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin, seeks to answer.
There’s a line in Daniel Levitin’s book This is Your Brain on Music that many people hate (Daniel J. Levitin, 2006). It’s not a contentious argument or scientific controversy, but the one that says: ‘One night when I was having dinner with Joni Mitchell …’ ‘In my Amazon comments they say, “I had to put the book down because of the incessant name dropping!”’ he tells me, talking over video call from his home in California. But Levitin can’t help whom he knows. Having spent fifteen years as a record producer before taking a degree at Stanford in his thirties and establishing himself as probably the best known voice on the neuroscience of music, Levitin brings a depth of musical experience, and contacts that few other academics have. Yet, despite his years of sitting in studios with musicians, it wasn’t until he became known as a neuroscientist that some of the world’s biggest stars started confiding in him – Joni Mitchell plays him her works in progress, Paul Simon reveals his writing process to him, Sting lets Levitin scan his
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brain. ‘I’ve known musicians all my life and I’ve never had these kinds of conversations before,’ he says. ‘It was as though Joni might not have otherwise let me in on the process, but now I’m a “neuroscientist” …’ well, she hopes he might be able to unlock music’s mysteries for her. Music is one of the universal passions and pleasures and its power to spark memories, manipulate emotions, and move our bodies can seem almost magical. It is a rich area for research. ‘Music activates more regions of the brain than anything else we know of, every region of the brain we’ve so far discovered,’ says Levitin. Listening to a piece of music might ‘unite the frontal cortex with the hippocampus, the seat of memory; the auditory cortex, the seat of analysis; the portion of the temporal lobe that analyses sound; the mesolimbic system because of the emotional reactions to it; the cerebellum, which organises movement.’ Levitin’s interests in music and science have run side by side since childhood. Even while working
in the music industry he was going to neuropsychology lectures as a hobby. But he made the shift into academia when he saw the record business starting to struggle in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His success in the lab has led to Levitin having a phenomenon named after him, the Levitin Effect, referring to the 1994 finding that people tend to remember songs in the correct key (Levitin, 1994). And he’s known for looking at the role of the cerebellum in music-listening, its role in mediating the emotional response to music as well as our integration of movement and timing. He has even investigated the neural correlates of pleasure, which brings us to his work with Paul Simon. Levitin is telling me about Simon’s creative process, whereby the songwriter essentially gets a group of great musicians in a room, gives them an idea and lets them jam for hours, then plucks out the bits he likes. ‘But what’s happening in Simon’s brain to tell him he likes it?’ I ask. ‘He asked me the same question,’ laughs Levitin. ‘The simplistic answer is that he’s getting a shot of reward chemicals, probably dopamine and opiates and a whole bunch of other chemicals that we can’t measure. The weird state of the field of neurochemistry right now is there are about 100 identified neurochemicals, but we only have the tools to measure five or six of them and it’s much more nuanced and subtle than that. A friend of mine says it’s like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost even though he lost them over there, but the light is better here.’ Music stimulates the same pleasure centres in the brain as hard drugs. The nucleus accumbens, the ventral tegmental area, and often the amygdala all work to modulate the levels of dopamine in the brain. Levitin and Vinod Menon were the first people to show that pleasurable music activated the mesolimbic system, ‘and we were able to infer that dopamine was being released but we couldn’t measure the dopamine directly,’ says Levitin (Menon & Levitin, 2005). ‘Later Robert Zatorre put a radioactive tracer on dopamine molecules and confirmed that dopamine was being released while listening to music (Salimpoor et al., 2011). And then after that, not to one-up him or anything,’ Levitin smiles, ‘we blocked the opioids system chemically [with naltrexone] and found that
Music stimulates the same pleasure centres in the brain as hard drugs we interfered with the pleasure’ (Mallik et al., 2017) Our current understanding regarding the particular depth of pleasure that music brings us, is that dopamine is released in anticipation of pleasure, while opioids are released when you actually obtain the pleasurable goal. When your mouth waters at the idea of cake, that’s dopaminergic; when you take a bite, you get the opioids. ‘But the fascinating thing about music, unlike food or heroin, as far as I can tell,’ says Levitin, ‘is that the anticipation and the consumption are intricately bound. As the music is unfolding from beat to beat, you’re constantly anticipating what will come next and you’re consuming what just happened, so you’ve got both systems happening.’ Another musical giant who has contributed to Levitin’s research is Sting, who read Levitin’s first book and called up asking to visit his lab at McGill University. In 2007, Levitin scanned Sting’s brain and looked at his responses to different types of music, as well as the difference between imagining a piece of music and actually listening to it. ‘We found, among other things, that listening and imagining were so close they were virtually indistinguishable from looking at the brainwaves,’ says Levitin. It was only ten years later, when Levitin’s colleague Scott Grafton developed new computational tools (multivoxel pattern analysis and representational dissimilarity analysis) to analyse their data that they were able to delineate the unique way Sting’s brain is organised (Levitin & Grafton, 2016). ‘We did a cluster analysis where we fed all the brain activations for the hour into a mathematical reduction tool that reduces the dimensionality.
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What we found was songs that were in the same key evoke similar representations. Songs that had the same starting note on the bass guitar had similar brain activations.’ It took some getting there to work out the connection. ‘I remember looking at a pair of songs and thinking, why am I getting similar activation from these two? They don’t sound anything alike to me. The tempos were different, the styles were different, they were harmonically very different. I actually printed out the scores and stared at them and after a few days I realised: the starting note is an open E! He’s a bass player, it makes sense. Now I’m not claiming that anybody else’s brain is organised that way. I only studied one person. There’s so much individual variability, no two brains are architecturally the same.’ Levitin’s popular success comes from his abilities as a communicator, and his thoughts on evolutionary psychology and neurochemistry interweave with anecdotes and musical insights. We discuss varied musical topics, including absolute pitch – also known as perfect pitch – the ability to hear a note, whether car horn or piano,
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and name it. It seems like a rare gift, but research shows it’s actually a learned skill, developed in early childhood, like learning a native language (there’s no evidence of any adult developing it). ‘There might be genetic factors, there’s certainly neuroanatomical structures that predispose someone towards acquiring it, but it’s not a guarantee,’ says Levitin. People with absolute pitch tend to have a larger left planum temporale, but most people who display that characteristic don’t
No two brains are architecturally the same
have absolute pitch (Keenan et al., 2001; Patterson et al., 2002). ‘The interesting thing is that we all have it, in effect, for colour,’ says Levitin. We have no trouble identifying frequencies on the colour spectrum as red or blue, because we practice from babyhood. What if we did the same for frequencies of sound? We talk about what makes people dance to music, the notion of ‘groove’, which is an interesting area of research. Music being ‘groovy’ seems to rely on small changes in rhythm and syncopation, the right balance of predictability and surprise to snag your attention. And yet, I say, electronic dance music, programmed to a rigid repetitive beat, gets people dancing for hours. What might be happening there? Levitin throws out a few ideas. ‘In EDM and trance music there are layers of changes evolving slowly in the upper registers, the higher frequencies,’ – that’s what keeps your interest – ‘and we know that your neurons synchronise to the beat of the music, they’re locked into it, and that can lower your heart rate,’ he says – hence the mesmerism of trance music. By contrast, studies show listening to techno increases norepinephrine and cortisol, which would take your heart rate in the other direction. You could think about evolutionary responses, he says, like booming bass notes which grab hold of your attention, ‘probably invoking an ancient warning symbol for stampeding elephants or avalanches’. And dancing as a communal experience has to be a factor, I suggest. ‘What we’ve shown in our lab is that when people listen to music together, their brainwaves synchronise,’ says Levitin (Abrams et al., 2013). ‘I don’t know what the practical implications of that are yet. Maybe it causes you to be more empathetic towards others... thousands of micro expressions and body language movements might be synchronised in a subliminally pleasing way.’ But alongside all of these things, he reminds us that musical taste is highly subjective. ‘I can’t say, if you put on this song by Diplo, this is how people are going to react.’
It’s been fifteen years since Levitin started writing This is Your Brain on Music (Levitin, 2006). The follow-up, The World in Six Songs, came three years later (Levitin, 2009). So what’s exciting him in the field now? ‘I’d like to see other labs pick up on this neurochemical theme,’ he says. ‘Doing that naltrexone study of blocking new opioids was very costly and that took three years to get approvals to do it – giving drugs to people who don’t need them. There are labs better set up for that kind of thing, so I’d like to see other people get involved in that. And I’d like to see some ways of studying other neurochemicals come to light through the development of radio tracers or pharmaceutical blockades.’ As well as continuing to write books beyond music that fulfil his mission to popularise neuroscience (the most recent, The Changing Mind, looks at some surprising findings about the ageing brain), Levitin himself is currently focused on mathematical modelling (Levitin, 2020). ‘We have a series of papers on mathematical equations that model and characterise 400 years of music (Levitin et al., 2012). I’d say most of my efforts right now are in that direction, partly because of lockdown. I can run all the experiments on the computer.’ Levitin and Menon found that rhythms in music from Bach to Scott Joplin conformed to the 1/f law, most simply that the most common event happens twice as often as the second most common, three times as often as the third most common, etc. They went on to examine the same formula in harmony (Wu et al., 2015). For those outside the field, the tight focus of individual experiments can sometimes feel like frustratingly tiny steps towards understanding this magnificent art form. How are we getting on with big questions, like where musical inspiration comes from? Is that just too complex to tackle? ‘It’s not too complex,’ says Levitin, adding, ‘I don’t know how I would go about studying it, but you may get there. Some of my work points to it a bit,’ he says. ‘Vinod Menon and I had a very productive collaboration for many years doing neuroimaging studies. We
When people listen to music together, their brainwaves synchronise
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The process of writing and performing music is not simply about flashes of inspiration. The creation of music is as effort-intensive in its attention to detail as Levitin’s work in the lab.
discovered some things about the default mode network, or resting state network, which is believed to be the brain state under which creativity occurs (Sridharan et al., 2008). We discovered the locations of the switch that helps you go back and forth in and out of it, and that’s in a structure called the insula, and we discovered that listening to music, possibly playing it, is a good way to put you into the default mode state. You put that together with the work of Charles Limb, who studies people improvising, which is pretty close to inspiration and composition, and he finds that, to many people’s surprise, when you’re improvising to a jazz tune, which is a difficult thing to do, it’s not that a whole bunch of brain areas get recruited that weren’t online before, it’s that you’ve got to shut off brain areas that might interfere with the creativity (Limb & Braun, 2008): self criticism, self consciousness, that nagging voice that says “What’s the matter with you, that’s not good, you’re an idiot!”’ The biggest question, of course, is whether knowing the theory actually changes how people write and listen to music. Levitin recently recorded an album, Turnaround (featuring twelve songs chosen from 120 he’s written), so I have to ask if what he now knows about music and the brain influenced his writing? ‘Yes, but not in the obvious way,’ he says. ‘I didn’t unlock some mystery and exploit that to make a hookier song.’ Instead, it was by studying the brains and creative processes of world-class musicians he realised ‘the music I like is the product of Herculean amounts of effort’. ‘Sting spends six months learning some of the songs he plays on tour. Joni Mitchell would play
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me some of her songs-in-progress and I’d come back a month or two later and say, “What do you have that’s new?” She’d say, “Oh, well I changed a word in that song.” I’d say, “What else?” She said, “No, I spent a month thinking about this sentence and I changed one word.”’ The process of writing and performing music is not simply about flashes of inspiration. The creation of music is as effort-intensive in its attention to detail as Levitin’s work in the lab. But it took becoming a scientist for Levitin to really learn that particular secret of being a great musician.
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MUSIC + SOUND
SINGING IN THE BRAIN INDRE VISKONTAS IN CONVERSATION WITH ANDREW DICKSON
Is perfect pitch a learned skill, or an innate ability? And what’s the key to a masterful musical performance? Neuroscience might just have the answers.
Canadian-born scientist and singer Indre Viskontas originally studied psychology, then went on to complete a master’s degree in vocal performance followed by a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. She is currently Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco and on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she applies neuroscience to musical training. A regular performer, Viskontas is also Creative Director of Pasadena Opera. Her book, How Music Can Make You Better, was published in 2019. Andrew Dickson: Let’s start at the beginning of your professional journey. Many members of your family are physicians. How did you come to choose neuroscience? Indre Viskontas: My parents immigrated to Canada from Europe when they were children,
so they valued education that would lead to steady work. My uncle became a gastroenterologist, my cousin an anaesthesiologist and my brother an orthopaedic surgeon. I was originally aiming for medicine, too, but in high school I discovered the British neurologist and author Oliver Sacks and became fascinated by the brain. At the University of Toronto, I chose psychology as my major. Once I graduated in 1999, neuroscience was seen as a hot subject. I also felt that I could make a greater contribution to society by conducting research on the brain than by practising as a psychiatrist: I felt we needed to learn a lot more about the organic causes of mental illnesses to help design more effective treatments. AD: On the musical side, do you remember when you first fell in love with opera? Could you describe that experience?
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IV: When I was six or seven, I joined the Canadian Children’s Opera Company Chorus in Toronto – a lot of fun, as we got to act and play, not just stand and sing. When I was eleven, I was cast as an altar boy in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, and was hooked: I got to wear cool costumes and run around on a huge stage while singing with a fantastic orchestra. At the end of one night, they handed me a huge cheque (or so it seemed at the time) because that performance was broadcast across the nation. In high school and university, I often studied while listening to the great opera singers, and those recordings fuelled my passion and provided me with a kind of comfort. I found it hard to make friends, so the arias and the voices I was hearing became my companions. AD: Do you feel that you perform as artist and neuroscientist, or do you ever have to separate the two? And when you’re in the audience, which role do you inhabit? IV: I often have to separate. In neuroscience, you’re in pursuit of a universal truth that is by definition
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reproducible and replicable by anyone. In art, it’s the opposite – you need to find what distinguishes you as an artist, and believe in your choices even when others don’t. You have to embrace subjectivity. That was a hard lesson to learn. As an audience member, I often wear both hats – allowing myself to be moved by a performance (or not), but also tracking and analysing what the performers are doing and how. I find it hard to go to the opera and just enjoy it, without working. So for fun, I go to the movies. AD: Does the brain of a trained musician develop differently from that of a non-musician and are there differences between, let’s say, jazz musicians and classical musicians? If so, is there a more marked difference with contemporary classical listeners, musicians or composers? IV: Yes, yes and yes. Since there are behavioural differences in the performances and abilities of musicians who specialise in different genres, we see these differences reflected in the brain, too. Training also differs – and so too do the brain changes that accompany training. But training also differs from one classical musician to the next, whether or not they play the same instrument. I’d say that you can separate these training-related brain changes into three broad categories: 1) Auditory processing changes – that is, how performers learn to listen to music. These tend to be noticeable across all trained musicians, though performers respond differently to their own instruments and genres compared to those of others. 2) Sensory and motor changes, which tend to be instrument-specific: in effect, the body maps tune themselves to the muscles being trained.
I often studied while listening to the great opera singers
3) Other changes that map onto the training methods emphasised within that genre – is originality in improvisation or technical perfection more important, say? There might be other individual factors, like motivation, introversion vs extroversion, and so on. There are also differences between performers and listeners. For most people, listening isn’t enough to engender measurable changes in brain anatomy and function – certainly when compared with many years of training that professional performers undergo. Someone who watches a gymnast is going to have a very different brain from the gymnast herself. This is also why great performers don’t always make great teachers: knowing how you yourself do something isn’t the same as being able to communicate that to others. AD: We’d love to ask about perfect or absolute pitch, the ability some people have to pitch notes without using an instrument (or accurately identify a note simply by hearing it). You’ve said previously that you’ve tried to teach your son to develop pitch sensitivity. Has that progression been interesting, and have you discovered anything that’s surprised you? IV: I actually gave up! The method that’s been shown to be 100% effective in kids aged two to six who persevere is incredibly monotonous – it involves listening to the same chords and tones and identifying key notes over and over again, every day for months. My son simply wasn’t interested enough. I didn’t want to push him and create negative associations with music. For kids who enjoy that training, I think it’s great. Maybe I’ll give it a go again with my daughter. Though someone needs to develop a really fun app that incorporates the method but adds cute farm animals or something … I also don’t think that perfect pitch is always an asset. For one thing, as a person’s hearing ability declines with age, so too does their pitch perception. Older adults who had perfect pitch sometimes report not enjoying music any more – even pristine performances begin to sound out of tune. Perfect pitch can also lead a child to rely on that ability rather than working with an ensemble to create a sound together. For some people it can actually diminish their enjoyment of making music with others, which is what I value most.
P roving U p © P asadena O pera
I ndre V iskontas in P roving U p © P asadena O pera
AD: Is perfect pitch a learned skill, an effect of memorisation and familiarity, or is there an element of genetic imprint or tendency involved? Can a young child even develop it if they were exposed to sound in the womb? IV: That’s a hard question to answer. We know it can be learned with the right training, but that’s not to say that for some kids it comes without effort. I liken it to recognising letters – for some kids, it’s easy to match the symbol with the sound, but you still need to expose them to the alphabet for them to make that connection. The same is true for perfect pitch.
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I ndre V iskontas + V ocallective E nsemble © V ocallective E nsemble
AD: In your 2019 TED talk ‘How Music Makes Me a Better Neuroscientist’, you give an example of setting musical intention, and mention that there are other techniques which can be used to intensify a performance. Could you give some examples? IV: There are two elements that need to be mastered to produce an effective performance. The first is that the performer needs to understand what universal truth speaks to them with regards to that piece of music; the second is how to convey that truth to the audience. Just knowing the truth isn’t enough, as I learned early on when I was criticised for performing ‘unmusically’. If you’re a singer, conveying that truth means embodying the character that you’re portraying, such that the audience understands it. There are a myriad of ways to do this, and techniques would be case-specific. But I will say one thing. Often when we’re familiar with something – an idea, a piece, a role – our minds take shortcuts. Performers have to remember that their audience is not as familiar with their music as they are, so they need to slow down, in a way. They need to incorporate time for the audience to process – to think, to breathe, to sit with the idea – before moving on.
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AD: This example of intentionality appears to relate to Berlyne (1971), who writes that ‘the hedonic value of music is related to optimal levels of arousal. Specifically, the music listener is rewarded or feels pleasure as a result of reduced arousal through the relief of an unpleasant curiosity or, alternatively, of moderate increments in arousal by exploration’ (Berlyne, 1971). Could you explain what is going on in the brain as the listener experiences ‘reduced arousal’? IV: I suspect what Berlyne is referring to here is psychological rather than physiological arousal, though the two are linked. What I think he means is that music can give us pleasure by reducing tension that it creates and builds – either by proposing a question (hence the ‘unpleasant curiosity’), by building up to an expected climax, or by taking us on a journey on which layers of meaning are slowly revealed. What’s going on in the brain is tied to the psychological experience, and will be different with each different situation. But we do have pathways that track the anticipation of rewards, and which induce different mental and emotional states.
I’ve been thinking about how music can serve to give meaning to our experiences
We see activation of these pathways during the build-up of tension in music, and then an autonomic nervous system response when the climax is reached or the tension is released. We often feel this as ‘chills’ – a physical sensation that in this context can be pleasurable. AD: You have referred to Bjork (1994) and his concept of ‘desirable difficulty’ with respect to the learning process, and spoken about how this concept has helped you to develop more effectively as a singer (Bjork, 1994). Is ‘difficulty’ also desirable in music for a listener, in that it may allow higher retention and deeper cognitive resonance as a result of the ‘struggle’? IV: The more ‘work’ you put into learning, the more likely you are to retain it in the long term. ‘Desirable difficulties’ slow the rate of learning so that the information sticks. Struggle can be good – though not all difficulties are desirable. AD: Why do a singer’s high notes draw out an emotional response from a listener? Is it related to the release of tension, or do high notes mimic a cry for help? How do dynamics play into this effect (for instance ‘floating’ a high note very quietly)? Is this an example of ‘a heightening of vocal or verbal expression’, as described by the musicologist Nicholas Mathew in your podcast, Cadence? IV: I think it’s all of those things – we respond to high notes viscerally because they tap into
our evolutionarily ancient response to hearing a child in distress, but also because they signal heightened emotional states such as joy and fear. High notes also cut through sonic landscapes, so they’re effective at seizing our attention. And they represent a kind of vocal acrobatics that we recognise as challenging, which perhaps increases our appreciation. High notes do often follow a build-up of tension, but that just enhances a prepotent response. ‘Floating’ a high note is an interesting phenomenon. We usually associate high pitches with fear or joy – emotions that involve loud sounds – so a soft high note perhaps draws us in, and makes us wonder about the emotion the person is expressing. It’s an intimate effect, since soft dynamics indicate that the emitter’s goal isn’t to communicate across large distances but to release deep personal feelings. It is absolutely an example of a heightened vocal expression, I’d say. AD: Which scientific or creative questions or ideas are you most excited to explore in the future? IV: I’ve been thinking about how music can serve to give meaning to our experiences, to make us feel connected and alive. As I’ve moved from being a singer to a director of operas, I’ve become more and more interested in crafting the overall audience experience. I’m also fascinated with the conditions that enable singers to thrive and perform at their best, and how a director can give them what they need to succeed. In the lab, I’ve been exploring how anxiety interfaces with creativity, and how a person’s mindset might be ‘massaged’ to enhance creativity. In one project, I’m investigating how brain stimulation might impact the creative process and mitigate doubts about one’s own creativity. Finally, I’m really interested in how technology is shaping our behaviour and how we think, particularly when it comes to creative work. How do we find meaning in life, as we enter an increasingly digital future?
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MUSIC + SOUND TECHNICAL ARTICLE
AND ALL THAT JAZZ Music activates the brain on many levels in both players and audiences. Jazz improvisation provides researchers with ideal real-time conditions to determine how making music might affect, and even alter, the human brain.
Touching down on the tarmac in Havana, a blast of humidity hits as you leave the plane. Out of the airport, you hail a taxi, first stop, La Zorra y el Cuervo. The club, aromas of smoke and rum in the air, bristles with tourists and locals alike. The band onstage prepares first number while the audience thrums in anticipation. A few moments of silence, then those familiar taps of the drumsticks and the band begins to play. The vibe is visceral but music takes hold not only in the body but also in the mind, rooted deep in the brain. Listening to music activates many areas of the brain along the auditory pathway (Triarhou & Verina, 2016; Wang, 2018; Jasmin, Lima, & Scott, 2019; Peretz & Zatorre, 2005). Vibrations of the eardrums elicit frequency-specific stimulation of the cochlea, which triggers the firing of action potentials along the auditory nerve. These action potentials cascade through numerous specialised brain regions which extract aspects of music: pitch, melody, harmony, and rhythm. We perceive
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DR ANDREW CURRAN
pitch and melody thanks to complex neural processing in areas such as Heschl’s gyrus, the planum temporale and various subregions of the temporal gyrus (Patterson et al., 2002). Harmony is detected in part via interactions between the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum (Baumann et al., 2015). And we count and feel the beat using fronto-parietal networks, particularly timing and mirror neurons which act as internal metronomes for our musical expectations (Molnar-Szakacs & Overy, 2006). Furthermore, attention to music recruits additional executive control networks. We engage our language centres of the brain, Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, responsible for understanding and producing speech (Kunert et al., 2015). Indeed, research has shown that the brain processes music and spoken language in similar ways. Additionally, we connect with music emotionally, activating our amygdala and other limbic regions (Zatorre & Salimpoor, 2013) experiencing a flood of mood-regulating hormones, including dopamine
and serotonin, to feel the joy of cheerful music or the sadness of minor keys. At the jazz club, a sheen of sweat covers the face of every musician. Chests inflated, cheeks distended, brows furrowed in concentration. Fingers dance up and down the fretboard of a guitar, and peck expertly at the keys of a piano, flying from deep bass notes to light trembling soprano. A heavy rhythm swings throughout. Somewhere between fast, reflexive sport performance and the slow, deliberate strokes of visual artistry, performing music can activate a multitude of motor pathways which interface with the auditory system (S. Baumann et al., 2005; Bangert et al., 2006). A complex tapestry of neural networks underlies the integration of timing circuits, sequencing, and spatial organisation, which converge during piano playing to find the correct notes at the correct time and the appropriate pressure to play. Auditory and motor pathways must dance together, working in feedback and feedforward loops when creating and listening to music (Gordon, Cobb & Balasubramaniam, 2018). We also hear music as language, and speak it. Learning to read and write music has been linked to improved general language acquisition (Brandt, Gebrian, & Slevc, 2012). Music-making and listening are also associated with increased brain plasticity: the ability of the brain to reorganise and form new connections. Research has shown music can even affect neonatal development in the context of neural plasticity (Chorna et al., 2019). With a musician and non-musician side by side, one might not notice obvious differences. But changes have been wrought in a musician’s brain through years of practicing a physical and mental craft (Luo et al., 2012; Wan & Schlaug, 2010). Indeed, musicians have robust and efficient auditory systems, along with increased functional connectivity across multi-sensory and motor networks. Even the motor systems of musicians exhibit signs of improved efficiency. For example, compared with controls, accomplished pianists showed lower cortical activation when executing complex finger movements (Krings et al., 2000). Another recent study, comparing musicians and non-musicians, revealed interesting differences in cortical activity between the
Music-making and listening are also associated with increased brain plasticity two groups (Zhang et al., 2015). Event-related potentials (ERP) were evaluated using EEG in young musicians and non-musicians during the performance of a listening task. The researchers found steady-state auditory responses to musical stimuli were significantly stronger in musicians. Furthermore, musicians were associated with increased ERP activity related to high-level cognitive processing. So, both ‘bottom-up’ auditory pathways and ‘top-down’ cognitive pathways assert influence over each other in the brains of seasoned musicians. A musician’s brain hardwires itself to understand music better with practice over time. The lights dim, focused on one saxophonist, standing alone. An inventive melody pours from the bell of the saxophone, the band lies quiescent, aside from light piano chords as accompaniment. As the saxophonist appears to finish, a trumpet blares out from the back row, daring an answer. Answer the saxophone does, and the two instruments trade bars in improvisation. Interestingly, delineations have not only been found between musicians and non-musicians, but also between musicians who improvise and those who keep to the original score. It turns out musical improvisation is closely linked with another curiosity of the human brain: creativity. Twenty-first century researchers have attempted to quantify human creativity, a difficult concept to nail down. How does one quantify such an inherently subjective quality? How does one know when one is being creative? Do you feel creative as a reader?
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Scientists now agree some degree of both novelty and quality are necessary to further creative endeavours. However, it may take days, months or years for an artist to complete a creation. As a result, science has often leveraged musical improvisation to examine the creative mind. Improvisation allows us to receive a real-time generation of novel musical ideas, under relatively sterile conditions. As such, jazz is perfect for this role. Many studies of creativity in jazz musicians compare the musicians against themselves. For instance, one recent study looked at differences in brain activity in musicians while either improvising or simply playing sheet music (Lopata, Nowicki, & Joanisse, 2017). This study went even further, comparing musicians who regularly improvised to those who did not. The investigators found that EEG alpha-band activity, a well known indicator of creativity, was not only higher during improvisation, but was highest in musicians who regularly improvised. Heightened alpha-band activity was also correlated with ‘objective’ ratings of individual performances. Here, correlate is an important word, as it cannot be definitively said that improvisational training improves creativity. It is possible creative brains are simply attracted to improvisation. Studies which attempt to localise the brain activity necessary for creativity have emerged. Using EEG measurements, it has been shown that jazz-improvising pianists possess increased beta-band power, while classical pianists show stronger theta waves (Bianco et al., 2018). The researchers used a unique strategy to assess creativity: unexpected chords. People usually have expectations of musical direction, such as chord progressions standard within pop songs and one tends to notice incongruent chord progressions. And jazz musicians and improvisers were able to notice chord incongruences earlier and more strongly compared with classical musicians. Another challenge for creativity analysis is that over the course of improvisation, a musician could be performing any number of mental tasks, from active listening to motor planning or even working-memory recall. At which moment is the musician demonstrating creativity? As a result, scientists often use task-independent anatomical comparisons, especially in fMRI studies. To resolve this, researchers have used fMRI to study trained musicians of varied improvisational
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ability during improvisation (Arkin et al., 2019). A short piece of music was played for the subject, following which the subject improvised some further notes. Through the use of non-magnetic digital keyboards these exercises were performed in an MRI, while experts, who were either experienced improvising jazz musicians or instructors, measured creativity. The researchers found that grey matter volume was highly correlated with subjective creativity ratings. Grey matter is often linked to information processing within the brain, suggesting that, in this case, the observed increased grey matter volume supports, rather than leads causatively to, creativity. While one jazz improviser can demonstrate creativity, can two demonstrate it better? A common form of improvisation in jazz is to ‘trade fours’, where two improvisers alternate turns. Each musician attempts to build upon what the other plays. Doing so requires a multitude of skills and focus. Each individual must understand the musical language of the other while adapting and injecting their own ideas. To investigate the neural correlates of this communal improvisation, researchers recruited jazz pianists to trade fours during fMRI acquisition (Donnay et al., 2014). Language centres of the brain were found to be strongly activated during the trading fours exercise, supporting the hypothesis that these brain regions are critical for both communication and creative cognition. To estimate the degree of creativity induced during the task, the scientists examined ‘melodic complexity’, a measure of how predictable the improvisations were. Ultimately, the studies discussed are limited to measuring neural or behavioural correlates of creativity. Future research will be critical for unveiling the causal origins of musical creativity from a neural perspective. For now, we depart the realm of science and return to our jazz artists in their smoky room. While we explore the neuroscientific underpinnings of their musical creativity, these musicians are consumed by music. So, enough about neurons for now. Time has passed from day to dusk and the club spits patrons out on the street. Lights dim and the band leaves the stage. But the night is young and there is another bar with a band nearby. The neural symphony plays on.
PSYCHO SONIC GEO SOUNDSCAPES: LANDI
JACKIE NEON HTTPS://SEISMAMAG.COM/STUDIOLAB-JACKIE-NEON
VISUAL FINE ARTS BRIEF LOOK
ANGLES OF INTERSECTION DR SALIL PATEL + PROFESSOR CHRYSTALINA ANTONIADES
Can art enrich neuroscientific research? A collaborative project between The Ashmolean Museum and the University of Oxford NeuroMetrology Research Group, aims to find out.
To develop a complete mind: study the science of art; study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else. - Leonardo Da Vinci The relatively new field of neuroaesthetics mirrors this belief - using neuroscientific research to decipher how we create and perceive aesthetics. It is a field which has been rapidly growing in interest, thanks to recent advances in functional neuroimaging and other neurotechnologies which enable us to see which areas of the brain are activated on contemplating paintings and film, phrases and melodies. In turn, these discoveries have both clinical and societal relevance. The clinical importance of neuroaesthetics is clear. Mapping out functional areas of the brain can inform us how to diagnose and treat neurological conditions that may impact aesthetics perception and related cognition. The
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NEUROMETROLOGY RESEARCH GROUP, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
societal implications of neuroaesthetics are slightly less well publicised. Art is sometimes seen as a luxury – at least some forms of it. But neuroaesthetics studies are showing how our minds are primed to seek out art, how art influences our behaviours and how art can gradually come to define us. Neuroscience, it seems, is not tainting art but instead showcasing its intrinsic universality. Brilliant work from colleagues such as Professors Semir Zeki and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has shown that the two areas, art and science, are highly linked in the context of brain function. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is approaching its 350th anniversary. A university institution housing Turner paintings, an original Stradivarius violin and swathes of ancient papyri is hardly the first place that comes to mind when thinking of the intersection between art and neuroscience. However, a collaboration between the Ashmolean Museum
P icturing P arkinson ’ s 2019
T he A shmolean M useum ,
and the University of Oxford NeuroMetrology Research Group, which researches Parkinson’s Disease, resulted in a series of unique art and neuroscience projects, the most recent of which was called Picturing Parkinson’s. The idea was to flip the premise of neuroaesthetics. Instead of using neuroscience to shed light on art, art was used as a prism through which to view neuroscience and, in particular, the common but often devastating neurological disorder Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease affecting areas of the brain responsible for movement and cognitive functions such as memory, decision-making, and attention. Chemical highways, mediated by dopamine, are gradually impaired, leading to Parkinson’s characteristic tremors, rigidity, and slowing of movement. This ‘irremediable diminution of the nervous influence’ was first described by the British physician James Parkinson in 1817 in his famous essay on the ‘shaking palsy’, the disorder that would later come to be known as Parkinson’s disease. The visual nature of disease, often defined by impromptu movements, lends itself to aesthetic interpretation. The ability to capture action and universalise the unique is a special virtue of artistic expression. It is no coincidence that the first monthly scientific journal published in the United Kingdom, to which James Parkinson contributed, was entitled Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts.
Each Picturing Parkinson’s day involved a variety of roundtable discussions and interview panels. Scientists, often confined to laboratories, were able to interact with patients. This dialogue had the dual benefit of 1) helping scientists understand how patients living with Parkinson’s felt and 2) educating patients about new scientific discoveries and shedding light on the potential of future, more effective treatments. The medium of art was used to illustrate both feelings and the complexity of underlying neuroscience. During one of these Picturing Parkinson’s events, the artist Yejeong Mutter used three-dimensional drawings fashioned from wire, which popped out from the confines of the canvas, to illustrate how our perceptions can be influenced by angles. Mutter cleverly used lights to cast and animate a multitude of different shadows, allowing for a variety of emotions and movements to emanate from a single object. This parallel realm – whereby people with Parkinson’s disease simultaneously act and mean to act in different ways – was beautifully rendered as a metaphor by the ever-changing nature of Mutter’s visual pieces. Many have disagreed with Da Vinci on the benefits of science and arts: according to the English Romantic poet, John Keats, science ‘destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism’. At the time, this was not an uncommon opinion. How antiquated such a view now seems.
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VISUAL FINE ARTS INTERVIEW
THE BEAUTY OF BIOLOGY JULIA BUNTAINE HOEL
How might neuroscientific research on consciousness be explored and influenced by art? Julia Buntaine Hoel joined us to discuss some her extensive work in this field.
Julia Buntaine Hoel is Adjunct Professor at Merrimack College and Montserrat College of Art, STEAMplant Coordinator at Pratt Institute, Founding Director at SciArt Initiative, and is a Leonardo/ISAST LASER host. She is also a neuroscience-based artist whose work explores the brain and consciousness. We spoke to Buntaine Hoel about how neuroscientific data influences her work and how she hopes SciArt will develop in future. Melissa Evans: As a neuroscience-based artist, do you have a favourite area of the brain? Julia Buntaine Hoel: I’m very partial to a few areas of the brain. First, I love the visual cortex; it has a fascinating structure which, if you look how visual information is processed, reflects the complexity of our visual world. As a visual artist, this has intrinsic value to me, and much of my work is about the visual perception system. Secondly, I’m very interested in the hippocampus – the memory ‘center’
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IN CONVERSATION WITH MELISSA EVANS
of the brain. A number of my pieces have centered around memory – it’s something we understand somewhat, but not very well. It’s within this part of the brain that place cells (in the hippocampus) and grid cells (within the adjacent entorhinal cortex) live, which are responsible for our ability to navigate and assign meaning to locations. This led to works of mine such as The Art of Memory. Lastly, I’m a big fan of the prefrontal cortex – this is one main area of the brain where we find pyramidal neurons. Pyramidal neurons are particularly beautiful for their tree-like structure, which has inspired many of my pieces as well. ME: What do you look for in data as an artistic influence? What initially piques your interest? JBH: Typically, I find much data beautiful, and the way data looks will draw me in. If upon further investigation I find there is something conceptually interesting behind it, I’ll print it out or bookmark it for
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65”. N euron data from E yewire , digital coll age . P rinted on aluminum . 5 editions . © J ulia B untaine H oel x
later use. Flipping through neuroscience text and nonfictions books with images is a great source of inspiration to this end. In other cases, it’s less about what the data means, and more about how it looks. Underlying the way that science represents the brain – in electrical waves, or scatter plots, or fMRI, and so on – are aesthetic choices made by the scientists and engineers who developed these technologies and software visualization programs. I often take inspiration from the aesthetics embedded in science, and use them as a guiding mechanism, such as in my pieces The Spaces Between and Wave(s). ME: In your opinion, what distinguishes beautiful or fascinating data visualisation from art? Is there a fixed point at which, during the development of your artistic creations, they cross over in your mind from one sphere to the other? JBH: Data visualization has a point – to convey specific information with no room for interpretation. While many of my viewers will walk away with a bit of science after looking at my work, my main aim is to leave them with a moving aesthetic experience
rooted in a scientific fact or finding, but formed by their own experiences and associations. Starting out with a piece of data, I manipulate the idea with the tools of art – form, material, scale, and color. While a two inch drawing of a neuron informs you about it’s structure (scientific illustration), a 12 foot neuron gives you the experience of the physicality of a neuron which in turn, gives my viewers not only an intellectual, but a bodily knowledge of the form and its meaning (my piece, Spike). My pieces stand alone on their aesthetics, but are always accompanied by a description which illuminates the science behind it, so the further a viewer chooses to dive, the more complex and rich their engagement will be. ME: Which has been the most physically or technically challenging piece you have created, and which has been the most rewarding? JBH: My work is conceptually driven, so I often have to use materials or techniques which are new to me in order to make the piece come to life the way I’ve envisioned. A lot of my early work posed many physical challenges as I was mastering the use of
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D elta W ave ( s )
2017. 2'×5"×1'. R ebar wire . © P eters P rojects G allery
I often take inspiration from the aesthetics embedded in science.
T he S pace B et ween 2013. 3"×6'. C l ay ,
acrylic paint .
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concrete (The Neural Correlate of Concrete), but a more recent piece, For Pollock, definitely posed a number of challenges which took about a year to work through. This was the first piece I made printed on aluminum – while printing it wasn’t the hard part (because printing it outsourced), getting the data I worked with (computer rendered neurons) to be the resolution I needed in order to print a 6 foot by 6 foot piece was a multistep process that required a lot of trial and error. I had a few false starts which mostly had to do with this resolution issue. False starts in art pieces can take a while to pan out – in my case, about 4 months. So I began again, and finally found the right method. In the end, there was no software solution; I had to manually attend to the edge of every neuron in the piece, pixel by pixel, which took quite a long time. But in the process, I adopted tools like the iPad pro and Apple pencil, which have both become essential in my art practice, and opened up doors to new works I might not have made otherwise. This piece also happens to be one of my favorites – it took about 8 months to make, on and off, and encapsulates many aims I have with my work in general – to highlight the beauty of biology and the chaos of the brain, on a scale that confronts viewers head to toe. ME: One of your current projects, The Art of Memory, explores re-imaginings of Giordano Bruno’s seals. Could you explain how his influence developed in this work? JBH: This piece is definitely my most conceptual art work – and for this reason, was one of the most fun to make. I learned about ‘the art of memory’ a number of years ago from Frances Yates’ eponymous book. Essentially, the art of memory is a memorization technique in which one applies concepts to locations or objects. A simple example is to assign items on your grocery list to different objects within your living room in a clockwise manner. Then, in your mind’s eye, take a tour of those objects in the correct order, and you will recall the grocery items much more easily. Expand this exercise to your whole house, with a larger memory set, and you’ve created a ‘memory palace.’ Orators such as Cicero used this technique to deliver his famously long speeches. The art of memory is something that I think about from time to time as a sort of intellectual interest in how the mind/brain was discussed and approached
2017. 16" × 24". C reated from microscopy photographs , taken by the artist , of rhesus macaque brain slides . P rinted on aluminum . 10 editions . © J ulia H oel
T erritory 4
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T he F orest
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T he G ame
T he S culptor
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T he B inary C ircul ar W heels
T he P eregrinator
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2018. S eals : 8"×8"
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printed on aluminum .
© J ulia H oel
pre-neuroscience, and as a technique which is still used today by many. It was when I was cleaning out some drawers that I happened upon a scientific paper I printed out years ago – the paper ‘Place Cells, Grid Cells, and Memory’ (Moser et al., 2007). I print things out when I find them interesting, even if I don’t know what I’m going to do with them … sometimes it takes years to figure out, as was the case this time. So I found this paper again around the same time that I had been thinking about Bruno and the art of memory, and realized the connection; place cells and grid cells live in the memory centers of the brain, and hold ‘maps’ of familiar environments. The study was on rat brains, but there is good reason to think similar processes occur in the human brain. Do place cells and grid cells contain the mechanisms through which the art of memory functions? I think so. And this got my artistic brain ticking. Girodano Bruno was a 16th century champion of the art of memory – and took the idea a step further by positing that there were a set of geometries which could encapsulate all knowledge. He simplified the idea of a memory palace down to geometric designs, or ‘seals.’ According to Bruno, these seals encapsulate the physical geometries necessary for any memory palace task or technique. Each seal has a name which refers to its function, and like a wax seal, is designed to bear the impressions of specific content. I was intrigued by Bruno’s notion that visualizations could be so powerful, and had to see them for myself. But when I got a copy of his book on the topic, 30 Seals, I found the book to be mostly text descriptions. There were a few drawings of the seals he describes, but many visualizations were missing. That’s when I realized my entry point as an artist – to give life to the seals Bruno believed in, but never brought to light. So, my piece is the set of seals as Bruno describes them – from his illustrations, it was easy for me to discern Bruno’s aesthetic style, which I let act as a guiding force. He loved four-way symmetry the most, but would also use two-way symmetry when necessary. His lines would always meet another line or circle or square, never hanging out in mid-air. He loved concentric circles, shapes within shapes, and had no limits on the complexity of the design. Additionally, as each seal has a name which indicated its thematic function, the seals’ geometry would often visually allude to the name.
Do I think these designs actually encapsulate all knowledge? Probably not, but as a conceptual artist, it’s the idea that that could be possible is what interests me. As for part two – that’s still very much in the conceptual development stage. I know a few things I’d like to include in this memory palace, such as a variety of objects, possibly arranged in the design of the neural circuitry which underlies a specific memory. The more I think about this project, the more I want it to be created in virtual reality, so perhaps that is my next tech hurdle to overcome! ME: Could you tell us a bit about Territories? JBH: The map is not the territory, as Alfred Korzybski said. While this piece does one thing – celebrate the beauty of the brain and neurons through pure aesthetics – it also speaks to the worldwide initiatives to map the brain, and questions the methods and purpose of such an enormous and probably impossible endeavour. Already, we have learned things we did not know about the brain due to mapping, so as with mapping our genome, any amount of mapping has the potential to help us enormously in advancing knowledge of the specific variety. I’m in full support of that. However, like any map, there is a bias or motivation which shapes the content within. A map of the restaurants in your town is helpful when you’re hungry, a map of the nature trails is helpful when you’re looking to take a hike. But neither are true maps of the town The scale of the map determines the amount of information included. With something like a town, a 100% accurate map would be the size of the town, and the map would cease to be functional. With something like the brain, there are 86 billion neurons and just about as many glial cells. We will never be able to see this map as a whole, so where does that leave us? No matter our efforts, the brain may remain our most intimate, yet most unknown world. Furthermore, if we create a digital map of a brain, are we not creating a digital brain? And what responsibility do we have to this digital entity, that mimics our construction, and perhaps consciousness, in bits and bytes? So rather than create a brain map, I’ve created ‘brainscapes’ using images from different parts of the brain, which are meant to look like world maps of unknown lands. No city names, no ocean names, no information whatsoever. I created these
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in the shape of and at the scale of a standard world map to elicit this idea. Sometimes I work larger, typically with my biology-inspired pieces, to allow for the subject have a powerful physical presence. Sometimes I work smaller to make the interaction slower, and more intimate. Sometimes I go for full immersion into an environment in order to transport you somewhere else entirely. ME: Your work, Raw Feels draws the viewer into a heightened and focused experience of the qualia of ‘red’. Can you describe your own experience of the red room you created? JBH: I loved being in this room, and think of it often. Raw Feels was my thesis project in graduate school. I was faced with the reality of having to have my thesis show within my own studio (a long story, relating to internal gallery scheduling issues at my school). So, I decided to take full advantage of being 100% in control of the space, which is best done with installation art. I had just finished David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind and fell in love with the idea of qualia. While the neuroscientific/philosophical community does not agree on the existence of qualia, I fall squarely on the side of the believers. There is something it is like to be, our mental states and perceptual experiences have a deep, rich, and specific feeling to them, and this feeling is ineffable, intrinsic, and private. A description of something can’t get you the qualia of it, no matter how detailed. So of course I believe in qualia, I’m an artist! I decided to hit people over the head with the example that’s most often given for qualia, which is “the feeling of the color red.” The feeling of the color red is vastly different than the feeling of the color blue, despite the fact that their processing in the visual cortex looks essentially the same. I can’t be described, yet everyone knows how it feels. So I painted my studio red – everything from the walls to light fixtures to piping on the ceiling, everything in sight was bright bright red. I loved being in that room, but not everyone felt the same way. Everyone had their own reactions to the piece, which ranged from delight to anxiety. It’s a powerful thing, to be surrounded by color – anyone who has seen a Flavin or Turrell can attest to that. But while their works are very much about creating an atmosphere, Raw Feels was about the raw feeling of the color red in all of its intensity.
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Being in this room for a semester did affect me – I realized at one point that of my recent purchases, most of them were red. But it also stuck with me in the sense that I feel there is great room for expansion in that piece, which I hope to realize someday (think, experiences across the color spectrum). ME: During the course of your collaborative SciArt work in any arena, what has been the most surprising conversation you have had? JBH: I started making art about science in the bubble of Hampshire College in western Massachusetts – while I wasn’t alone in making this type of work (the movement was well on its way when I joined it), I literally was the only one around doing it. I thought that there were no artists around me – professors or students – who were also interested in science was due to the small school, and the small town I was in. That’s part of the reason I went to New York City, to attend an interdisciplinary graduate program in Fine Arts. I thought surely, in the art capital of the world, in a program that encourages “interdisciplinarity,” I’ll find some professors or peers who have the same type of artistic concerns that I do. What I encountered instead was a hostile atmosphere of postmodernism, supported by professors who were stuck in abstract expressionism, and other disciplines like science were dismissed as irrelevant and actively rejected. That was surprising, to say the least, and shifted my perception about how my work fits within the larger context of the art world. I have no regrets about my graduate school education – it was a means to an end, led to some amazing chance opportunities, and really prepared me for the culture of the current art world where science-based art remains very much on the fringe. ME: What areas of scientific research would you be most curious to work with in future? JBH: Consciousness research is one line of neuroscience I’m very interested in – it’s the newest field within neuroscience, so it not only has the furthest to go, but also has the largest potential for impacting all of neuroscience (because what use is a g-protein coupled receptor to us, if it’s not supporting, in some tiny way, the conscious brain?) I also continue to delve back into history – with my pieces like The Art of Memory and My Life as a Lunatic. It’s fascinating to see how the brain
used to be thought of, and how so many of the questions being asked in the 1500s by Giordano Bruno, or the 1800s by William James, or the 1950s by Walter Freeman, are still unanswered. So history is more relevant every day, as technology catches up, or doesn’t. ME: How do you envisage or hope the SciArt community will progress over the next ten years? JBH: Since I founded SciArt Initiative 6 years ago, I’ve seen an amazing amount of growth in the science-art community worldwide. I’d like to think we helped, in our own way, to make that growth happen. Nearly every month, I hear about a new initiative, publication, or program which supports and fosters inter/trans/cross-disciplinary work. It’s so encouraging to see new parts of the world become active players in this sphere – this is not so much a reflection of people beginning to do this work for the first time, but realizing what they are interested in is part of an existing movement that began back in the 1960s. So I hope to see people continue to take the bold step to join this movement wholeheartedly, especially at the community-organizing level. I hope that science-based art becomes completely and totally standard, as art about topics like identity and politics is. I hope artists feel as comfortable ordering a slime mold kit from Carolina Biological Supply as they do buying a tube of Titanium White from the art store. From the other side, I hope that scientists continue to explore the ways in which the arts can expand their work and push it in new directions. From communication, to visualization, to unconsidered points of view, art has a lot to offer the sciences, and only recently did scientists really start to understand this. I see scientists writing in artists on their grants, inviting them into their laboratories, engaging in self-directed collaborations. The mutual relationship that can form between an artist and scientist is very special, and has led to some of the most interesting work I see being produced in both fields. I’m also a professor, so I think a lot about schools and students, and what is really valuable to learn in college. I hope that academia stops talking about supporting inter/trans/cross-disciplinary learning (a nation-wide trend in the U.S. – the ‘talking’ part), and actually starts providing structures – physical centers, permanently funded faculty positions – to support STEAM learning in a real, meaningful, and
lasting way. I hope that students don’t continue to think they have to grow up to be only one thing, that’s an idea of the past. If college students can all graduate having learned that science and art are not diametrically opposed, that would be a huge shift. If they graduate having learned that our 21st century problems and opportunities in fact require cross-disciplinary thinking (within the sciences, within the arts, and between them), this will have a trickle down effect in our society as they enter industry, government, and the cultural sectors. Those are some of my hopes for the next ten years!
B io A rt
O rganized by S ci A rt I nitiative , G enspace , led by E mily G arfield .
© S ci A rt I nitiative
I’m a big fan of the prefrontal cortex.
C hristopher H anusa , as part of “ T he V oid C loud ” S ci A rt I nitiative e xhibition (2017)
© S ci A rt I nitiative
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VISUAL FINE ARTS TECHNICAL LOOK
BAR EUREKA In this technical overview we look at the eureka moment and different styles of artistic expression. Do the brains of artists using different styles exhibit different neural mechanisms and how do they experience inspiration?
What would happen if Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock, in some time-twisting turn of fate, were to encounter each other at the local pub? Would Pollock drunkenly strike up a conversation on the irritating and futile nature of representational art, only to be reprimanded by Michelangelo for his irreverence and utter lack of technical discipline? Perhaps Tracey Emin and Sophie Calle would enter the mix and belittle both men for their misogyny and paternalistic unoriginality, or Nam June Paik and Bill Viola would ignore everybody while fiddling with a set of antiquated CRT monitors in the corner, hoping to tune the static on the screens to the tonal frequency of the rain pattering outside. Although it may seem that these diametrically opposed individuals would likely disagree on many aspects of the creative process, we could learn much from a direct comparison of the brain mechanisms underlying their respective geniuses. At the surface level, the abstract or conceptual artist appears to be strongly motivated by aspects of primal instinct and raw emotion, while the realist is apparently driven by higher-order aspects of cognition, such as executive functioning, pattern emulation and mathematics. Meanwhile, contemporary artists may
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seek to subvert consciousness itself, hoping to elicit subconscious or even transcendental responses to their works through careful utilisation of technology and environmental manipulation. So what are these very different but very brilliant artists thinking while conceiving their masterpieces? And perhaps of greatest interest, what are the neural correlates of their respective eureka moments? The concept of the eureka moment is one that has enamoured humankind for centuries: how is one to achieve the perfect mental state conducive to inspiration and revelation? Although we are far from completely understanding this enigmatic aspect of human cognition, continuing advances in neuroscience offer exciting revelations into the mechanisms of the eureka moment and creative insight. The limbic system, which houses emotional and motivational centres of the brain, is particularly relevant to all categories of art. From an anatomical perspective, ultra-high field functional magnetic resonance imaging has recently revealed that creative thinking and moments of high insight strongly activate the nucleus accumbens, a subcortical region of the brain that is a critical hub for reward
processing and emotional control (Tik et al., 2018). Another recent study found that dopamine, the key neurotransmitter in the mammalian reward system, is released during the appreciation of music (Ferreri et al., 2019), and newly proposed models of creative cognition point to dopamine as a key player (Gu et al., 2018). Thus, for many individuals, the artistic process itself is perhaps a cathartic experience, due to the transient activation and ‘opening up’ of reward pathways in the brain. In addition to emotion and reward pathways, eureka moments may fundamentally depend on perceptual changes and state shifts in consciousness. One intriguing study suggests that eureka moments are the result of a critical mass of evidence building up at the subconscious level, such that it pierces the threshold of conscious awareness (Kang et al., 2017). A novel paradigm, known as the Dira method, appears to support this understanding of eureka moments (Loesche, Goslin, and Bugmann, 2018). Using the Dira method, it was found that individuals spend far more time interacting with and evaluating potential solutions that are ultimately chosen. This evaluation phase, whether driven by emotional or analytical pathways (if not both), could be necessary for an accumulation of evidence for a desired solution. At the same time, it was found that eureka moments can arise somewhat spontaneously or preemptively, without the individual fully interacting with all potential solutions first. Indeed, another recent study showed that shutting out visual inputs is associated with moments of sudden insight (Salvi et al., 2015). Specifically, while analytical problem-solving was associated with externalised attention, insightful problem-solving was associated with internalised attention. The practice of turning one’s attention inward in order to gain artistic insight and transcend normal consciousness is not a novel idea. Longterm practitioners of mindfulness have shown enhanced creative abilities, as compared with
non-practitioners, along with reduced inter-hemispheric cortical activity at rest (Berkovich-Ohana et al., 2017). Additionally, cyclic meditation training has been shown to increase creative cognition and functional connectivity between frontal and parietal regions, which are responsible for executive functioning and perceptual processing (Shetkar et al., 2019). These findings collectively suggest that through consistent practice, mindfulness can reduce noisy activity in the default mode network of the brain while enhancing functional networks that are critical for both analytical and insightful problem-solving. Still, others may want to abandon these antiquated practices and directly utilise technology, such as non-invasive electrical neurostimulation, for enhancing insight. Experiments with transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) suggest that we may be able to tap into creative processes by modulating oscillatory neural activity in the cortex that is relevant to information processing. In fact, gamma band tACS (40 Hz) applied to the temporal lobe was found to increase the occurrence of eureka moments in a pioneer study (Santarnecchi et al., 2019). In another case study, a professional artist was stimulated using alpha band tACS (10 Hz) during meditation, resulting in an increase in spontaneous visual imagery (Luft et al., 2019). Ultimately, as we return to our rag-tag assembly of artists arguing at Bar Eureka, perhaps we are left with more questions than answers. Given the many subtleties which vary discussions and definitions of the eureka moment as it relates differently to art, science and problem-solving, and the highly complex neural networks involved in relevant aspects of emotional, perceptual and cognitive processing, there is still ample opportunity for speculation and novel experimentation. Although we continue to gain new insights into the nature of insight itself, we still have a way to go down this rabbit hole.
Eureka moments can arise spontaneously or preemptively
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SCOTT LAMBRIDIS “How cool is this?” she asks, but what registers is the packet of light passing through his left cornea. It refracts forty diopters past his iris, twenty more past his lens, flecking potassium ions off a cluster of cones in his fovea. Having spent hours in the colorless world of an airplane’s night, all five million cones shake like naked girls in a humid rain. Positive ions shimmy down the depolarized receptor and spray proteins into the synapse that are snatched up by other hungry proteins on the waiting bipolar neuron, their digestion taking 0.002 seconds before they are hungry again. Bipolar to ganglion, down the optic nerve, across the chiasm, then to his thalamus, passing the depolarization into the third layer of the first optic tract in his right visual cortex on wires firing always and only at 520nm. Elapsed time: ~0.12 seconds. The dust is weightless as the train platform, as the building, as her hand. Other cells fire too, triggered by unsteady light movement. Distant, alternate pathways converge on the signal with predictive possibility. Successive patterns. Synchronous patterns. Attempts to keep the signal down, to know it, to ignore it. Of the many possible unsteady 520nm greens, this one is the lime-colored tail of her wool jacket snapping forward with the gust from the train. The signal passes, up, up, up, into deeper connections where inputs from other pathways intersect. The green is also her luggage, collected in the airport a few minutes ago. And the envelope of her birthday card, with tickets for this trip, her first to Manhattan. And the pillowcase at his mother’s house, a train-ride away. And the company logo he was creating when he first saw her enter his office building to pick up one of his coworkers, her old boyfriend. And the fliers for his band’s show that she snuck out to see. And her underwear in the hotel room after. And the apple he was eating when that old boyfriend threatened to kill him, and her, for their betrayal. And the gum he was chewing when he told her he didn’t have time for a relationship back then. And a kite on the beach in a wind that would snap her wedding dress some time in the future when he can see himself holding her and repeating words that bind. All over his brain now, nerves chatter in the following proportions: 42% the green of her flapping coat, 31% the sound of the incoming train, 12% the smell of body odor, 8% the advertisement on the wall, 6% the stiffness of his back, and 1% the feel of clothing on his skin and the pace of his breathing and the movement of his hair and the temperature and the voices around him that are all muffled and insignificant yet monitored and measured still by that little linking organ between the nervous and endocrine systems, the hypothalamus. Master gland. It watches all, reuptaking and releasing its chemical messengers into the blood, triggering the sympathetic and parasympathetic paths of stress and sweat, attentive hairs and thumping heart, calm, hunger, thirst, relief. Up and down, and up and down.
Elapsed time: ~0.24 seconds. He still feels nothing discernable. More nerves signal the presence of these internal messengers back up in a feedback loop, pairing them in a causality he feels as stimulus plus good, and stimulus plus bad, matched to the past, present, or future. Hope that he will see her coat flapping like this again. Fear of her jacket pulling her into the tracks. Pride that she agreed to this trip at all. Terror that she will say “no” when he tells her in the dark of his mother’s house how much he has thought of her these past couple years. Elapsed time: ~0.32 seconds. At twenty-five, he’s had 157,680,000,000 times ten to the power of 9 thoughts. And his brain holds the notion of other brains too. He knows that in hers there are people and buildings and careers and mountains and pancakes and arguments and bicycles and gnats and healthcare and a million other wonderful and horrible tidbits of life, but to him in this moment there is only the black edge of the end of the world and the white expanse between him and her, and so his brain shoots an efferent signal down his spine, a bullet train connecting to a smaller train leading to his wrist’s flexor muscles that pump calcium ions across the divide to the skeletal muscles whose fibers slide over each other and his hand contracts and squeezes hers so that she looks up. “Isn’t it?” she repeats. “Beautiful,” he says and the dust falls and their dead skin cells fly from their hands, sucked into the wind behind the passing train.
NODE 1 (2020), PEN AND COLLAGE ON CARTRIDGE PAPER, 59CMS X 59CMS
THE NEUROSCIENCE OF CREATIVITY
THE CREATIVE LOCUS DR ABHRAJEET ROY
In this overview article we go in search of the creative locus, exploring recent advances in the neuroscience of creativity. How might neuroscience define and measure creativity and how might we stimulate creative thought?
I. Introduction to the Neuroscience of Creativity What is creativity? A standard definition is that creativity is the ability to generate new ideas. However, from a neuroscientific perspective, this seems to be a gross oversimplification. Indeed, different modes of creative thought exist, and under each creative mode lies a highly complex neural infrastructure. These numerous types of creativity generally fall under two types of thinking: convergent and divergent. Convergent thinking refers to the process of finding a single correct solution to a problem. In contrast, divergent thinking refers to the process of idea generation: conceptualising numerous potential solutions for a given problem that can be evaluated later. Though these two modes of thinking are generally thought of as opposites, both are essential for creative problem-solving and often work in tandem. Over the last decade there has been an explosion in the use of pharmacological approaches,
functional neuroimaging techniques and cognitive science for the study of human creativity, namely through innovative investigations of convergent and divergent thinking. With regards to the neural mechanisms of creativity, leading evidence points to a careful interplay between several large-scale brain networks at the macro level: the limbic system, the default mode network (DMN) and the executive control network (ECN) (Figure 1) (Pidgeon et al., 2016; Zhu et al., 2017; Beaty et al., 2015; Beaty, Kenett, et al., 2018; Beaty et al., 2014). Further down at the micro level, neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine play essential roles in the ballad of creative cognition (Gu et al., 2018; Ferreri et al., 2019). This review summarises a number of key current developments in the study of creativity and its neural mechanisms, while highlighting additional recent works that have utilised novel approaches to try and enhance aspects of creative thought.
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Different modes of creative thought exist, and under each creative mode lies a highly complex neural infrastructure II. The Creative Brain – New Insights & Perspectives Advances in functional neuroimaging have shown that widespread networks across the whole brain are predictive of individual creative ability. A 2018 functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of 163 individuals spanning diverse artistic and scientific domains utilised connectome-based predictive modelling (CPM) to identify functional brain networks relevant to creativity (Beaty, Kenett, et al., 2018). CPM is a recently developed method for delineating functional brain connections relevant to a particular behavioural variable, such as creative ability (Shen et al., 2017). CPM can further be used to predict behaviours of interest in subjects whose data are not used in the initial stage of model creation. In this case, with regards to predicting highly creative behaviour during a divergent thinking task, CPM revealed a broad neural network linking three cortical hubs of more specialised networks: the posterior cingulate cortex (DMN), the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (ECN) and the salience network (left anterior insula). Additionally, this ‘meta-network’ was able to predict creative ability in novel individuals during other creative tasks. These findings are particularly intriguing, since the three cortical hubs identified generally work in opposition to each other. This suggests that certain individuals have a unique ability to simultaneously recruit these hubs in order to maximise creative thought. Individual differences in intrinsic brain functional connectivity have also been associated with differences in creative ability. A 2017 fMRI study investigated differences in resting-state functional connectivity and creative ability assessed by the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) (Gao et
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al., 2017). Based on TTCT measures, two groups of individuals were compared: a high creativity group and a low creativity group. Overall, the high creativity group exhibited greater efficiency in functional connectivity across brain networks relevant to creative thought. Additional connectivity properties of the DMN and ECN were further correlated with differences in creative ability. Other studies reiterate the importance of interconnectivity across distinct brain networks for mediating creativity. For example, large-scale brain networks have been implicated in verbal and visual creativity, respectively (Zhu et al., 2017). In this resting fMRI study of 282 healthy participants, the investigators assessed functional connectivity within and across the DMN and ECN during both a verbal and a visual task. Functional connectivity between the DMN and ECN was positively correlated with both verbal and visual creativity. In contrast, functional connectivity within certain nodes of the DMN and ECN was negatively correlated with both domains of creativity. These findings reiterate the notion that distinct networks in the brain interact during creative cognition. They further suggest that inhibition of functional connectivity within these distinct networks allows for the emergence of a ‘meta-network’ relevant to creative processes. A 2019 fMRI study of jazz improvisation also reported a correlation between increased creativity and decreased functional connectivity in a number of relevant brain networks (Dhakal et al., 2019). In this study, a group of 24 professional jazz musicians with at least six years’ of improvisation experience was instructed to vocalise or imagine either pre-learned or improvised music while fMRI data were collected. While the pre-learned
music performance served as a control task, the imagined performances allowed the researchers to avoid potential confounds from neural activity related to motor and perceptual aspects of the performance. Compared with pre-learned musical performance, improvisation was associated with increased blood oxygen level dependency (BOLD) activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, lateral premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, cerebellum and Broca’s area. However, functional connectivity within and across these same areas was comparatively reduced during improvisation. This decreased functional connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (an ECN hub) and lower regions of the brain could disinhibit subconscious creative processes necessary for improvisation. These findings are in line with another recent study which investigated differences in brain anatomy and musical improvisation capacity. In this protocol, 38 participants completed an improvisation continuation task prior to a T1 anatomical MRI scan (Arkin et al., 2019). Next, a group of professional jazz instructors evaluated the creativity levels of the participants’ improvisations. The researchers then used voxel-based morphometry (VBM) to correlate creativity levels with anatomical differences across a number of brain regions. Increased creativity ratings on the improvisation task were associated with reduced gray matter volume in the bilateral hippocampus and right inferior temporal gyrus, both of which are key players in auditory processing and memory. Furthermore, individual years of improvisation training was associated with greater creativity ratings. However, more training was also associated with reduced gray matter volume in the rolandic operculum, a key hub between the parietal and temporal lobes important for multisensory integration and self-awareness. Pharmacological studies have further shown that dopaminergic reward systems can mediate appreciation of creative works. In a recent
double-blind and within-subject study (n = 27), participants were given either levodopa (a dopamine precursor), risperidone (a dopamine antagonist) or lactose (a placebo) prior to three separate music listening sessions (Ferreri et al., 2019). For each listening session, participants were asked to rate both their ‘liking’ of the music (hedonic response) and their ‘wanting’ of the music, in terms of how much money they would spend on it (motivational response). Both the hedonic and motivational responses of participants were significantly increased during the levodopa (dopamine) session, compared with the placebo session, while risperidone significantly decreased both response measures. The researchers suggested that dopaminergic reward systems may play a broad role in mediating abstract thought, given this apparent causal link between dopamine and pleasure derived from music. Brain networks involved in emotion, decision-making and reward are all known to be recruited during creative thinking. But how do these distinct networks specifically communicate during the planning of an artistic piece? Furthermore, do these networks communicate differently in professional artists compared with a layperson? One recent study sought to elucidate answers to these questions, using fMRI to investigate functional connectivity between the DMN and ECN in artists and non-artists (De Pisapia et al., 2016). Eyes-closed fMRI data were acquired at rest, during a focused alphabet recall task, and during the planning of a visual art piece. Indeed, all participants, regardless of artistic training, showed increased functional connectivity within the DMN and between the DMN and ECN during the creative planning task, compared with both rest and the alphabet recall task. Additionally, compared with the non-artist group, the artist group showed significantly increased functional connectivity between the precuneus and a number of regions implicated in both perception and executive
Dopaminergic reward systems may play a broad role in mediating abstract thought
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function, including the posterior cingulate cortex, fusiform gyrus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The precuneus is a critical hub of the DMN implicated in consciousness and information processing. Aside from functional connectivity and anatomical studies, others have begun to investigate potential causal relationships between brain networks implicated in creativity, by assessing effective connectivity. In one recent study, dynamic causal modelling (DCM) showed that the prefrontal cortex asserts unidirectional control over the middle temporal gyrus and inferior parietal lobule during a divergent thinking task (Vartanian et al., 2018). This is in contrast to the hypothesis that these regions exert bidirectional influence on each other via a feedback loop spanning the ECN and DMN. These results suggest a cascading model of divergent thinking. First, the DMN generates potential solutions to a problem based on ideas retrieved from semantic, episodic or recombined memories. Second, the ECN mediates the selection of the solution which is ultimately output. Although our understanding of the neural mechanisms of creativity has been greatly expanded through neuroimaging studies in healthy human volunteers, brain lesion studies can also provide major insights into the networks critical for creative thinking. Researchers in Paris, France hypothesised that patients with lesions in distinct nodes of the prefrontal cortex would exhibit differential deficits in creative thinking
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(Bendetowicz et al., 2018). This study aimed to elucidate the unique contributions of the DMN and ECN in mediating creative associations. It was found that patients with damage to the right medial prefrontal cortex, implicated in the DMN, exhibited deficits in the ability to generate remote ideas during
Brain lesion studies can also provide major insights into the networks critical for creative thinking
a Combined Associates Task (CAT). In contrast, patients with damage to the left rostrolateral prefrontal cortex, implicated in the ECN, were still able to generate remote ideas assessed by the CAT but exhibited deficits in combining remote associations during a Free Generation of Associates Task (FGAT).
In addition to the study of creativity in general, a number of groups have utilised cuttingedge functional neuroimaging approaches for investigating the neural correlates of sudden insight, otherwise known as the eureka moment. In particular, a recent study utilising 7 Tesla, ultra high field fMRI during a remote association task (RAT) in healthy human participants (n = 29) revealed several key subcortical regions activated at moments of sudden insight (Tik et al., 2018). The RAT is unique in that it tests for both divergent and convergent thinking, compared to most other tests which evaluate just one or the other. Compared with low insight events during the RAT, high insight events were associated with significantly stronger activation in the nucleus accumbens, a subcortical region of the brain known to facilitate dopaminergic reward pathways. As a key player in the limbic system, the nucleus accumbens is well situated to mediate emotion-related networks spanning both subcortical and cortical regions. This could explain its strong functional activation during a eureka moment, when there is a sudden feeling of relief, ease, joy, and confidence. In another study of eureka moments, researchers assessed eye blinks and eye movement activity during problem-solving. In this case, sudden insights were associated with subtle attentional changes, indicated by the shutting out of visual inputs (Salvi et al., 2015). Specifically, the investigators found different patterns of ocular activity during insightful,
versus analytical, problem-solving. During the pre-solution phase, insightful problem-solving was associated with an increase in both the frequency and duration of blinking, along with a reduction in eye movements, compared to analytical problem solving. During the solution phase, insightful problem-solving was further associated with long blink durations, especially just before a eureka moment.The authors suggested that these involuntary changes in eye activity during insightful problem-solving could reflect increased phasic dopamine release and cognitive flexibility. These findings highlight a promising approach for delineating subconscious attentional processes relevant to creative problem-solving. Other recent work in the realm of eureka moments suggests that sudden insight or realisation is the consequence of subconscious processes reaching a critical mass of evidence which then pierces through to conscious awareness (Kang et al., 2017). In this study, five participants were asked to make perceptual judgements about a dynamic random-dot motion stimulus. During each trial, participants viewed random-dot motion and had to decide in which direction the dots were moving. Once a decision was made, participants would set a clock at the time that they made the decision. Overall, subjective decision times were shorter for ‘easy’ trials, where there was strong motion of the stimulus in one direction or the other. This allowed for a subjective decision time curve to be extrapolated for each participant. The investigators then fitted a drift-diffusion (i.e. bounded evidence accumulation) model to each participant’s subjective decision time curve. For four of the five participants, the drift-diffusion model predicted individual decision times very accurately. The researchers proposed that this model truly reflected the timing of a eureka moment, versus just a post hoc report. They further suggest that these conscious decisions were the result of sufficient accumulation of evidence at the subconscious level. As part of the growing body of work investigating mechanisms and properties of the eureka moment, novel paradigms have emerged for studying this enigmatic mental phenomenon. Researchers recently developed one such paradigm, coined ‘Dira’ (French for ‘he or she will point out’), for delineating the chronological and chronometric aspects of creative processes which
Insightful problem-solving was further associated with long blink durations
lead up to the eureka moment (Loesche, Goslin, and Bugmann, 2018). In this study, a eureka moment was defined as ‘the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept’. In the ‘Dira’ experimental paradigm, an individual goes through 40 trials (or rounds) where they are presented with a short line of scrambled text above a set of six blurred images. Images become clear when the participant hovers the mouse over them. The experiment also tracks the total amount of time the participant spends interacting with each image. The participant must ‘solve’ each trial by selecting an image which they feel appropriately matches the scrambled text message. Following each trial decision, the participant rates the difficulty of the preceding trial and notes how strongly they felt the eureka moment. The participant also rates their confidence and happiness levels following each trial decision. Using this approach in a group of 124 participants, researchers found that individuals spent more time interacting with images that were eventually selected as solutions, compared with unselected images. Furthermore, individuals could come to a solution without exploring all of the presented images. For trials which evoked a strong eureka moment, the time spent on selected solutions was approximately 50% greater than the time spent assessing unselected solutions. Strong eureka moments were also associated with a high level of confidence and happiness, echoing other studies that have linked dopamine release to creativity and insight.
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III. Neuroscientific Models of Creativity – Cognition & Emotion Several recent models have linked creativity with cognition and emotion, respectively. Creative cognition specifically refers to the cognitive processes that underlie creative thought, whether it be in the domain of visual arts, music or otherwise. As described earlier, creative thought can be either divergent (i.e. creative idea generation) or convergent (i.e. creative problem-solving). Mathias Benedek and Andreas Fink argue that creative cognition can in fact be understood by leveraging our knowledge of three fundamental aspects of normal cognition: memory, attention and cognitive control (Benedek and Fink, 2019). Importantly, creative cognition is not necessarily exclusive to artistic geniuses or mad scientists, but instead is thought to be the summation of ordinary events within the scope of normal cognition. With regards to memory, research has shown that conceptualising future events activates brain networks which overlap with those activated during episodic memory recollection (Beaty, Thakral, et al., 2018). Indeed, although creative thought ultimately seeks to generate ideas beyond those contained in memories, drawing on a foundation of experiences can facilitate the conceptualisation of novel approaches and solutions. Benedek and Fink also emphasise the potential role of internal attention in mediating creative cognition, drawing on studies that have shown increased EEG alpha activity in the right parietal cortex (Benedek, Schickel, et al., 2014) and decreased fMRI activity in the visual cortex (Benedek et al., 2016) during creative thought. They suggest that creative cognition is not wholly dependent on sensory input, and that internally focusing attention on self-generated ideas allows creative individuals to fully leverage their imaginations. Finally, cognitive control appears to be a key aspect of creative cognition, with executive function and intelligence being highly predictive of creative abilities in a number of studies (Benedek, Jauk, et al., 2014). Furthermore, although certain brain lesions within the prefrontal cortex have been shown to inhibit creative thought, in some cases brain lesions affecting executive function may actually enhance certain aspects of creativity (Abraham et al., 2012). Ultimately, under Benedek and Fink’s three-tiered
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framework of creative cognition, one can postulate means of directly or indirectly enhancing creative thought by manipulating various aspects of attention, memory and cognitive control. Of course, aside from cognition, it is well established that creativity is intrinsically linked to emotional processes, particularly with regards to the arts. Artifacts, music, and nature can all elicit strong emotional responses in the viewer that are governed by distinct neural mechanisms, depending on the particular emotion that is evoked. One provocative model attempting to reconcile the link between creativity and emotion is the Three Primary Colour Model, which assumes that humans have four basic emotions (happiness, sadness, fear/ surprise and anger/disgust) that are governed by the three primary monoamine neuromodulators: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Gu et al., 2018). This model emphasises two main aspects of creativity with respect to a creative work: value and novelty. From an evolutionary perspective, value refers to the level of efficiency of a coping method in response to a stressful situation, through a process of primary appraisal, secondary appraisal and reappraisal. In the Three Primary Colour Model, dopamine is theorised to facilitate the process of creative problem-solving because its release depends on whether or not a chosen coping method is successful or not. A more creative coping method that is highly efficient could result in a greater dopamine-based reward and reinforce that line of creative problem-solving. In contrast to value, novelty refers to the unexpectedness of a particular situation or stimulus, which could elicit arousal and trigger a fight or flight response. Norepinephrine is the key monoamine neuromodulator in this case, as its release is triggered in response to surprise, fear, and novel situations. Creativity could be driven by emphasising attention on the salience of novel stimuli which consistently lead to arousal and norepinephrine release. Finally, we come to serotonin, which is also released during stressful situations, particularly when there is a need to cope with or avoid stressful stimuli. Serotonin is strongly associated with punishment, aversion, and behavioural inhibition, and generally has a negative correlation with reward (Dayan and Huys, 2009). In fact, serotonergic
F igure 1: C reativit y N et works © A bhrajeet R oy
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Serotonin could potentially mediate creativity systems have been shown to act in opposition to dopaminergic systems (Gu et al., 2018; Khalil, Godde, and Karim, 2019). However, the specific link between serotonin and creativity is still up for debate. Since adequate levels of serotonin are critical for stress management and mood stabilisation, serotonin could potentially mediate creativity, which flourishes when the mind is relaxed and ideas are free-flowing. Serotonin may also mediate emotional responses to creative works in a manner similar to dopamine. While certain works of art evoke pleasure and comfort via dopaminergic pathways, others which evoke feelings of disgust, shame, or aversion may operate via serotonergic pathways. At this time, further work must be done to elucidate better the complex interactions between serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine as they relate to creativity.
IV. Boosting Creativity – From Neuromodulation to Mindfulness Humanity’s propensity for creativity and culture separates it from other earthly organisms, so it is no surprise that humans have consistently explored means of enhancing creative thought over the generations. Recent advances in both technology and our understanding of the mind point to novel and exciting ways of facilitating creativity without the use of pharmacological agents. For example, a number of studies have explored the application of non-invasive brain stimulation for enhancing creativity (Lucchiari, Sala, and Vanutelli, 2018). The theory behind this neuromodulation approach is that brain networks related to creative thought can be subtly modulated in a safe and reversible manner, in order to induce transient increases in
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divergent or convergent ways of thinking. Repeated cognitive training sessions coupled with neuromodulation may even facilitate long-term changes in brain network connectivity and creative thought processes. One group recently conducted a pilot study to investigate whether transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) can be used to modulate aspects of divergent and convergent thought (Ruggiero et al., 2018). tDCS is a non-invasive means of stimulating the brain across the scalp surface through the application of very small, polarity-specific electrical currents (generally less than 2.0 mA) at the subthreshold level (i.e. tDCS does not induce action potentials in the brain but instead modulates the excitability of target brain regions and associated networks). In this case, the researchers were interested in elucidating the specific role of excitability in the anterior temporal lobe (ATL) as it relates to creative thought. The ATL has been implicated in semantic memory processes across a range of studies, which makes it a critical node for facilitating general worldly knowledge related to concepts, facts and things (Bonner and Price, 2013). Anodal (excitatory) tDCS (1.5 mA, 20 minutes) or sham stimulation was applied over the left and right ATL during a divergent thinking task, with a convergent thinking task being completed before and after the tDCS period. One group received tDCS over the left ATL, one received tDCS over the right ATL, and one underwent the sham stimulation protocol (seven subjects per group). Interestingly, tDCS over the left ATL reduced reaction times during the convergent thinking task, suggesting an effect on insight itself. However, stimulation to the right ATL had no discernible effects on reaction time during the convergent thinking task, and neither stimulation approach showed significant effects during the divergent thinking task. Although this was only a small pilot study, it highlights the potential of using tDCS for elucidating the role of specific brain regions in mediating opposing facets of creativity. Another larger study of tDCS recently investigated how stimulation of the prefrontal cortex could potentially influence performance on three aspects of creative cognition: conceptual expansion, associative thinking, and set-shifting ability. In this study, 90 healthy university students were
recruited and received bilateral tDCS over the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) during the performance of three tasks: Alternate Uses Task (AUT), Compound Remote Associate Task (CRA) and the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task (WCST). Participants showed improved performance on creative tasks when anodal (excitatory) tDCS targeted the right IFG, in tandem with cathodal (inhibitory) tDCS over the left IFG, compared to the sham stimulation condition. In contrast, anodal tDCS of the left IFG with cathodal tDCS of the right IFG resulted in inferior creative performance compared to sham stimulation. Additionally, EEG recordings revealed increased right frontal activity in the beta band (12-30 Hz) following anodal stimulation of the right IFG. This increase in beta band activity was correlated with enhanced performance on the behavioural tasks. Aside from tDCS, which utilises a continuous direct current to modulate neural activity, tACS (transcranial alternating current stimulation) has emerged as a non-invasive means of stimulating the cortex in a frequency-specific manner. Given that oscillatory activity in the brain is both indicative of different brain states and utilised for different types of information processing, there is growing interest in leveraging tACS for studying human cognition. One such 2019 study specifically investigated the potential of tACS in the gamma range for increasing the occurrence of eureka moments (Santarnecchi et al., 2019). In a group of 31 healthy participants, tACS at 10 Hz (alpha) and 40 Hz (gamma) was applied to the right parietal and temporal lobes, respectively, during both a compound remote association (CRA) task and a Rebus Puzzles task. Resting EEG activity was also recorded after each task + tACS block. Improvements in accuracy on the CRA task were only observed during gamma band stimulation of the right temporal lobe – no effects on CRA or Rebus Puzzle performance were reported during alpha tACS over the right parietal lobe. Resting state fMRI data collected prior to the tACS experiments also revealed a correlation between bilateral temporal lobe functional connectivity and individual
performance enhancement on the CRA following gamma tACS over the right temporal lobe. This study highlights the relevance of subject-specific responses to neuromodulation as it relates to enhancement of creative cognition and further expands our knowledge of the relevant mechanisms of eureka moments. Although technological means for boosting creativity are certainly exciting, more conventional practices such as mindfulness and meditation may be sufficient on their own. Indeed, as we discussed earlier, quieting the mind may allow more space for creative focus and imagination. This is highlighted by a recent study which compared creativity and brain activation measures across groups of individuals with varying levels of mindfulness training (BerkovichOhana et al., 2017). These researchers specifically evaluated associations between DMN activity (as indexed by low-gamma band resting-state EEG) and divergent thinking. Their findings revealed that the two subject groups with high levels of mindfulness training (over 1000 hours) showed reduced resting-state interhemispheric EEG functional connectivity in frontal and posterior brain regions, along with increased divergent thinking abilities (indexed by fluency and flexibility), with respect to the subject groups with little or no mindfulness training (12 subjects per group). Despite the small sample size, these results reiterate the notion that cognitive training alone, specifically in the realm of mindfulness, could enhance creative thinking skills over time through the reduction of ‘noisy’ neural activity in the DMN. EEG has also been used to study the effects of cyclic meditation on creative cognition (Shetkar et al., 2019). Cyclic meditation, also known as moving meditation, combines different yoga postures with elements of guided meditation, and has its origins in an ancient Indian text known as Mandukya Upanishad. Researchers found that cyclic meditation enhances aspects of divergent thinking during the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA). Furthermore, while EEG activity was
Practicing meditation may also contribute to creative cognition
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Neuromodulation could enhance the occurrence of spontaneous visual imagery
primarily in the delta (low frequency) range for the control group, EEG activity in the cyclic meditation group shifted from the delta to gamma (high frequency) range. Additionally, increased functional connectivity between frontal and parietal EEG channels was observed in the gamma band for the cyclic meditation, a potential mechanism for the observed increase in creative cognition. Practicing meditation may also contribute to creative cognition in seemingly indirect ways, through enhancement of visual imagery. Visual imagery, although not explicitly defined in terms of either divergent or convergent thinking, can bolster creativity by enhancing imagination, which itself is unique from creativity. A 2019 case study used both EEG and neuromodulation to investigate the link between creativity and spontaneous visual imagery in a professional artist during ten meditation sessions over the course of six months (Luft et al., 2019). For seven of the meditation sessions, EEG was used to delineate changes in cortical activity related to the occurrence and characteristics of spontaneous visual imagery. During these sessions, occipital activity in the high gamma range (30-70 Hz) was consistently increased during the deepest stages of meditation and strongly associated with increases in spontaneous visual imagery. tACS was further applied during three of the meditation sessions (10 Hz, 40 hz, and sham stimulation) to assess whether neuromodulation could enhance the occurrence of spontaneous visual imagery. Interestingly, the participant reported sharper, shorter, and more numerous occurrences of spontaneous visual imagery during the 10 Hz (alpha band) tACS session only, while gamma and sham stimulation had no reported behavioural effect. Despite being a case study, these highly intriguing
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findings suggest a deeper link between aspects of visual imagery and creative cognition, and highlight the potential in simultaneously leveraging meditation and neuromodulation for enhancing inspiration and subsequent creativity.
V. Conclusion There is no doubt that great progress has been made in recent years towards the neuroscientific understanding of creativity and insight. From major advances in neuroimaging technology, to novel means of modulating creative cognition, our neural models of creativity continue to expand and differentiate, much like a dendrite. Ultimately, the aggregation of scientific research continues to support the notion of cross-network communication across disparate brain regions during creative thought. Indeed, the brains of creative individuals appear to have a knack for simultaneously engaging brain networks that would otherwise be in cognitive conflict. In particular, these creative brains may help us delineate the interplay between conscious and subconscious neural processes as it relates to convergent and divergent thinking, respectively. Furthermore, given the deep connection between emotion and creativity, additional research may lead to novel approaches for maintaining a good state of mind. After all, numerous studies have shown that exposure to creative works can improve mental health and well-being (Mastandrea, Fagioli, and Biasi, 2019). Advancing the neuroscientific study of creativity will continue to challenge our paradigms of human expression and could elucidate the deepest mysteries of the mind in years to come.
AUDREY RANGEL AGUIRRE
HUMAN BRAIN CELLS SILICON (2019), LIGHT SCULPTURE
ARCHITECTURE + DESIGN INTERVIEW
THE NEUROARCHITECT HARRY FRANCIS MALLGRAVE
American architect and thinker Harry Francis Mallgrave is fascinated by the relationship between building and the brain. Can neuroscientific architecture and ‘embodied simulation’ really help us design better environments – even improve human wellbeing?
Architecture was born from the human body, it could be said. The earliest stone dwellings were probably barely taller than we are. Greek and Roman architects modelled their columns on bodily forms and hired sculptors to carve caryatids – figures, usually female – to hold up entablatures. Leon Battista Alberti, the great Renaissance architectural theorist, suggested in the fifteenth century that ‘just as the head, foot and indeed any member must correspond to each other’, the same was true for a building’s constituent proportions. In his so-called ‘Modulor’ from 1948, a system of measurements based on a man with a raised arm, Le Corbusier suggested something remarkably similar. Even now, in the age of CAD (computer-aided design) and VR walkthroughs, buildings are invariably designed by humans, for humans. But what of the body’s insides, specifically the ‘mass of grey, white and other matter’ crammed inside our craniums? These are the words of the
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American architect and thinker Harry Francis Mallgrave, who has made it his life’s work to move the mind to the centre of architectural study. In works such as The Architect’s Brain (Mallgrave, 2011) and the more recent From Object to Experience (Mallgrave, 2018), Mallgrave draws on some of the latest neurobiological research to re-examine the foundations of design thinking – seeking to change the way we think about buildings by investigating how we, well, think. ‘It’s about how we relate to things like form, space, textures – things we haven’t even been able to study yet,’ Mallgrave tells me on a video call, speaking from his South Carolina home in the foothills of the Appalachians. ‘It’s about how we relate to the world.’ Born in 1947, Mallgrave came of age as an architect in the mid-1970s after studying at the University of Detroit. While sketching construction documents for school buildings for a firm in
Minneapolis, he became disillusioned with working to the dictates of educational boards and the lack of opportunity for fresh thinking. When his first wife, a computer designer, took up an attachment in Oxford, England in 1977, Mallgrave travelled too – and, while he was there, decided to approach his discipline from a different angle. ‘Oxford really changed my life,’ he laughs. When Mallgrave returned to the US seven months later, he embarked on a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on the Neo-Renaissance nineteenth-century German architect Gottfried Semper. A parallel career as a teacher and writer followed, including nineteen years based at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where he wrote standard texts on architectural history and theory. In 2004, he joined the Illinois Institute of Technology and is now Distinguished Professor Emeritus. As well as being an Honorary Fellow at the Royal Institute of British Architects, he has been closely involved in the US-based Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, which aims to strengthen connections between design and brain research. Watching the architectural profession changing around him in the 1990s and 2000s, Mallgrave had a suspicion that design schools and practising architects were heading in the wrong direction – away from focusing on the humans who used their buildings, and into the realm of self-referential abstraction, dominated by splashy ‘starchitecture’ and digital approaches to design. One solution, he thought, might be in the fast-evolving discipline of neuroscience. Mallgrave’s The Architect’s Brain came out in 2010, swiftly followed by Architecture and Embodiment in 2013, which delves more deeply into what biology and genetics can offer the built environment (Mallgrave, 2011, 2013). From Object to Experience, which calls on designers to create spaces that improve our emotional wellbeing, came out in 2018 (Mallgrave, 2018). Along with other advocates such as John Eberhard, Juhani Pallasmaa and Sarah Williams Goldhagen, Mallgrave is part of a new wave in architecture, one that seeks to overturn many of the ways designers have worked for the past half-century. Mallgrave hastens to point out that neuroscience is far from the only lens that designers can use. But it has powerful insights to offer, he
It’s about how we relate to the world
suggests, particularly as technologies such as electroencephalograms (EEGs) and functional MRI (fMRI) enable us to measure things about the brain that we have previously only guessed at. He points to a 2017 MRI study that presented a cohort of twelve architects with images of ten structures: five ‘contemplation-inducing’ buildings, among them the Pantheon in Rome and Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel in rural eastern France; and five ‘ordinary’ buildings, including an anonymous downtown office block, a shopping mall and a housing complex (Bermudez et al., 2017). The scans suggested that the ‘contemplative’ buildings elicited markedly different brain signatures compared to those elicited by ‘ordinary’ ones, including increased activity in the occipital lobe (the visual processing centre) and the inferior parietal lobule (involved in the perception of emotions). Interestingly, the researchers also observed what they call ‘diminished internal dialogue’ in their subjects – suggesting that meditative spaces really do soothe our minds and make us calmer. ‘Contemplative buildings actually invoke these emotional, meditative areas of the brain,’ Mallgrave says. ‘They activate completely different circuits.’ In another study conducted by the Londonbased researcher Semir Zeki and cited in The Architect’s Brain, ten people were shown 300 paintings and asked to classify them as ‘ugly’, ‘neutral’ and ‘beautiful’ (Kawabata & Zeki, 2004). The paintings that were judged ‘beautiful’ activated the orbito-frontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with romantic love. Hardly surprising, you might say. Perhaps the more interesting, unexpected result was that ‘ugly’ paintings activated the motor cortex – as if people instinctively wanted to turn away.
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‘Good buildings fill us emotionally with a sense of happiness and gratification,’ Mallgrave writes. ‘Bad buildings call us to take flight.’ As the title of The Architect’s Brain indicates, he even suggests – a little playfully – that just as the brains of musicians adapt through intensive training (a famous example of ‘neural plasticity’), so the brains of architects might be subtly different from those of their peers. ‘I don’t think there are major differences,’ he insists when I ask about this. ‘But there are differences. It does force one to think three-dimensionally – transforming two-dimensional images, floor-plans, and sections into three-dimensional forms.’ Of all the developments in neuroscience, Mallgrave is perhaps most fascinated by what is called ‘embodied simulation’ – the theory that when we see an action, emotion or sensation, our brains rehearse what it would be like if we were experiencing those things ourselves (Gallese & Sinigaglia, 2011). When we witness people dancing, our motor cortices fire, even if we’re not moving our own bodies. If we’re watching an action movie and the hero’s body tenses during a torture scene, our brains simulate the same response, even though nothing is happening to us physically. Responsible for this process are so-called ‘mirror neurons’, found in primates and birds, which spring to life when we execute a motor act but also when we simply observe it (Gallese, 2009). Mallgrave argues that the implications are huge for architecture. ‘Think what happens when you look at a material like wood; your brain immediately focuses on what it’s like to touch. It’s warmer than both steel and glass, and we respond to that.’ Or you might consider concrete, the use of which reached its apogee in the ‘Brutalist’ era buildings of the 1950s and 60s. The term technically derives from the fact that the material is used in an unfinished state – béton brut simply translates as ‘raw concrete’ – but there is research
suggesting that our brains really do perceive it as brutal, Mallgrave points out. ‘We now have experiments saying that people don’t want to walk near it, for the basic reason that if you rubbed up against it, you’d cut yourself.’ ‘Neuroscience isn’t going to say, “Stop using concrete”,’ he goes on. ‘But it suggests we should use it in a better way.’ It might be argued that many of us – particularly in Britain and North America – associate concrete with low-quality postwar social housing projects, poorly maintained and left to crumble. Might those social experiences also be contributing to our negative response to the material? Could this be a form of cultural conditioning? Mallgrave thinks not. ‘I think it’s biologically conditioned,’ he says. Materials are, in fact, at the heart of Mallgrave’s approach to design. Architects have focused for too long on what spaces look like, he argues in From Object to Experience, and not nearly enough on what spaces feel like: what a surface is like to run our fingers along or walk on; how aluminium panels make us ‘feel’ cold even if the temperature is warm; even the particular smell of a room (Mallgrave, 2018). Hamstrung by tight budgets, architects have been slow to adopt such innovations: high-tech ‘acoustic engineering’, pioneered in purpose-built spaces such as concert halls and recording studios, is only now starting to be used in the buildings in which most of us spend our time. Designers often talk about site orientation and ‘solar gain’ (thermal radiation from the sun) without necessarily considering how emotionally satisfied we feel when sunlight floods a room. All of which seems odd, given that such considerations have, historically, been seen as part of the architect’s role. As the eighteenth-century poet, aesthetician, philosopher, and occasional designer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it, ‘when, in dancing, we move according to certain rules, we
Contemplative buildings actually invoke these emotional, meditative areas of the brain
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Architecture has to be pleasing; it has to be a friendly environment. It has to seduce. feel a pleasant sensation, and we ought to be able to arouse similar sensations in a person whom we lead blindfold through a well-built house.’ Some call this new–old concept ‘hapticity’; others ‘tactile space’. Whatever name you go for, Mallgrave is passionate about it, especially for its effect on our emotions. ‘It’s crazy to think that we experience any work of art or any work of architecture without emotion,’ he says. ‘It is always there.’ And emotions are ‘precognitive’, he adds: we feel them before we know we’re feeling them. ‘To me, it is the most fundamental underpinning of architecture.’ There is, of course, a complaint often made about neuroscience, a field which is still in its infancy: that researchers have a reputation for using sophisticated and expensive tools to tell us things that are blindingly obvious. Few people would be astonished to learn that memory is a complex, multi-faceted process involving many different areas of the brain, say, or that emotions run deep. When it comes to architecture, do we really need neuroscience to tell us that we’re instinctively drawn to natural materials, or that chapels and temples make us feel contemplative? Mallgrave is the first to admit that neuroscience doesn’t hold all the answers, and much of it is, he thinks, ‘just good architecture’. ‘Good architects have a nice, intuitive understanding of these issues,’ he says. But in a way that’s not really the point, he suggests: what he’s advocating is for more research like this – and there is much more still to be done – to trickle down into universities and design schools. ‘We do need it,’ he insists. ‘It will help us to advance the knowledge across the profession.’ How would he respond to another critique, that some of his own aesthetic ideas, despite being
based on cutting-edge research, are somewhat conservative? Calling for more stone or wood and less concrete is one thing; deciding that organic forms or classical harmony is intrinsically ‘better’ on the basis of a few neurological studies seems more dubious – particularly when notions of ‘beauty’ are so contested (some of us are pretty partial to Brutalism, for instance). Mallgrave insists he’s not attempting to be prescriptive, but does say that ‘there is something to be said about the classical notion of beauty. Works of art don’t need to be beautiful, but architecture has to be pleasing; it has to be a friendly environment. It has to seduce.’ But he’s not against high modernism or rectilinear geometry per se? Corbusier is permitted into the pantheon? He laughs. ‘Well, his chairs were very uncomfortable.’ There is, Mallgrave states again and again, plentiful work to be done. Starved of funding, few neuroscientists have focused specifically on architecture, or connected it to other biological and physiological research. It would be fascinating, he thinks, to measure our heart rate or blood pressure as we enter particular spaces, or use VR-style visualisation software in fMRI scanners to measure the impact of different virtual environments. ‘The door is wide open right now,’ he says. Most of all, he hopes that design courses and architects in training will pay more attention to insights gleaned from brain science. If the conclusions they draw are as old as the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna or Palladio’s exquisitely neoclassical Redentore church in Venice, so much the better. ‘Nothing would please me more,’ he says. ‘We’re heading back to where we should be.’
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ARCHITECTURE + DESIGN TECHNICAL ARTICLE
CEREBRAL STRUCTURES Interdisciplinary initiatives spanning neuroscience and architecture have developed widely in recent years. But how might interaction between these two fields influence architectural design in future?
‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards they shape us.’ Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons, 28 October 1943 With these words, Churchill encapsulates an interesting concept: as we create buildings, so they influence our own minds and behaviour. This is a connection that has recently become the focus of research and a new field called neuroarchitecture. Indeed, in 2003 an organisation dedicated to this field, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA), was founded in San Diego. AFNA’s purpose is to support collaborations between neuroscientists and architects with the goal of obtaining a deeper understanding of how humans respond to the built environment (Papale et al., 2016). The aim of this article is to review the connection between neuroscience and architecture, particularly in the context of neuroaesthetics.
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DR ELIZABETH MUEHLFELD
Neuroarchitecture aims to gain a deeper understanding of how architecture influences human behaviour and cognition. This connection between architecture and human behaviour was recognised as early as 1936, as outlined by de Paiva: The psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947)...illustrates the role of the environment on individuals [sic] behavior: B = ƒ(P, E), which means behavior is a function between the Person (a unique individual with his own memories and genetics) and the Environment...By Environment [Lewin] means not only the social environment, but the physical environment too. Thus, behavior is also influenced by architecture. And this relation between environment and individual happens not only in a cognitive way, but also in an emotional or even instinctive way (de Paiva, 2018).
As knowledge about the impact of architecture on the brain increases, architects can potentially develop structures that have a positive influence on wellbeing, behaviour and cognition. Neuroaesthetics is a sub-discipline of neuroscience, connecting, as the name suggests, aesthetics and neuroscience (Vartanian & Goel, 2004). Empirical methods for data collection such as neuroimaging are applied in order to gain a deeper understanding of what happens in the brain upon perceiving aesthetic stimuli (Bostanci, 2016). Chatterjee and Vartanian originally developed a model to describe aesthetic experiences in neural terms – the aesthetic triad – which was later adapted specifically to the field of neuroarchitecture (Chatterjee & Vartanian, 2016; Coburn et al., 2017). According to the authors, sensorimotor, knowledge-meaning, and emotion-valuation systems are responsible for the generation of aesthetic experiences. First, when traversing a built environment, various sensory systems are triggered. Second, cultural contexts and personal experiences may influence neuroaesthetic responses. Finally, aesthetic stimuli activate emotional and reward-system responses. This proposed triad model can help us understand aesthetic experiences in general and the ways in which architecture could influence perception and behaviour. Neuroaesthetics in architecture has been researched with reference to both behavioural and psychological effects. For example, Cook and Furnham used a five-factor personality inventory and ratings of photographs of British buildings in order to find a relationship between personality and aesthetic preference (Cook & Furnham, 2012). The authors found that, the more familiar a building was, the higher the aesthetic rating was for that building. Controlling for familiarity, Cook and Furnham found that one’s personality had both a direct and indirect influence on architectural aesthetic preferences. Extroverts showed an
aversion to High-Tech and Brutalist architectural styles. Neuroticism was also negatively correlated with preference for High-Tech buildings, but positively correlated with preference for Victorian Gothic architecture. Further work by Cleridou and Furnham reiterates the influence of personality on aesthetic preferences (Cleridou & Furnham, 2014). This study, which also made use of the five-factor personality inventory, identified openness to experience as the best predictive factor for higher aesthetic ratings. In addition, an interesting experiment by Shemesh et al. combined different investigational methods such as questionnaires, virtual reality and EEG measurements to investigate people’s reactions to different spaces with different geometries (Shemesh et al., 2017). Participants with design experience showed a preference for spaces with sharp angles, while participants without any design background showed a preference for curvilinear spaces. Furthermore, the EEG work done by Shemesh et al. suggests that humans have a subconscious system which can detect differences in symmetrical and non-symmetric spaces. Experts and non-experts not only seem to differ in their perceptions of spaces, but they also exhibit differences in their neurological responses to different spaces, as reflected by individual blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) activity patterns. This was demonstrated in a study which asked architects and non-architects to judge architectural visual stimuli and control visual stimuli while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data were acquired (Kirk et al., 2009). The authors found that higher aesthetic ratings correlated with increased activation in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). Interestingly, architects showed a significantly increased response in the OFC in comparison to non-architects. Our understanding of neural responses to architecture has also been furthered by studies focusing on the perception of contours (Vartanian et al., 2013).
Extroverts showed an aversion to High-Tech and Brutalist architectural styles
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Vartanian et al. compared the beauty ratings of 18 lay participants regarding pictures of architectural designs and looked at the influence of contour on approach-avoidance decisions. This study found that individuals had a general preference for curvilinear spaces, which, the authors suggest, evoke feelings of pleasantness. fMRI measurements revealed an increase in anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) activity that was associated with beauty ratings of curvilinear spaces compared to rectilinear spaces. These findings regarding a general aesthetic preference for curvilinear spaces appear to support the previously described findings of Shemesh et al. Further work by Vartanian et al. adopted a similar procedure but eliminated the contour variable. In this manner, the researchers were able to investigate the effects of perceived enclosure and ceiling height on aesthetic judgements and approach-avoidance decisions (Vartanian et al., 2015). Overall, a stronger aesthetic preference was found for higher ceilings and rooms that were perceived as more open. Higher ceilings correlated with an activation in the left precuneus and left middle frontal gyrus, both regions associated with visuospatial exploration. Images of open rooms elicited activation in the right superior temporal gyrus and left middle temporal gyrus, regions that play a role in visuospatial attention. Avoidance was associated with structures perceived as enclosed and correlated with brain activity in the anterior
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midcingulate cortex, an area that is directly connected to the emotional epicenter known as the amygdala. This apparent relationship between avoidance and enclosed structures might bear some interesting implications for architectural design. If the purpose of a structure is to invite people to enter, such as in the case of a community build-
Looking at interior and exterior parts of the same building activated the same brain areas
ing like a church or a school, a more open design would be more desirable. Scientists have also conducted research on neuroscience and architecture outside the realm of aesthetics. Choo et al. aimed to delineate neural activity associated with the perception of various architectural styles (Choo et al., 2017).
The authors report brain activity in several temporal regions important for high-level visual perception: the parahippocampal place area (PPA), occipital place area (OPA) and fusiform face area (FFA). Although the FFA is known to be involved in the processing of faces, Choo et al.’s findings suggest that it may also encode the configural characteristics of buildings. The authors further argue that our brain’s classification of a certain architectural style requires analysis of the global shape and layout of a building, and the shape of its architectural elements and their configurations. In this case, the observed activity across temporal regions suggests that this global architectural analysis is carried out beyond the primary visual cortex, which handles more fundamental aspects of visual processing. Another recent study by Marchette et al. investigated neural representations of built spaces (Marchette et al., 2015). fMRI data were acquired while subjects viewed images of the interior and exterior parts of buildings in order to detect the neural underpinnings of landmark recognition. Interestingly, looking at interior and exterior parts of the same building activated the same brain areas. The authors suggest a tripartite division of labour: the PPA supports a landmark identity code that represents a particular place. Meanwhile, the retrosplenial complex (RSC) retrieves spatial and conceptual information about these places, while the OPA encodes their perceptual details.
Aside from perception, creativity also plays an important role in architecture. According to Hernan Pablo Casakin: Creativity is a key element in design problem-solving. A major reason is that design is a complex and ill-structured activity, where problems cannot be solved through the application of algorithms or operators (Casakin, 2007) The designer or architect needs creativity in order to find new and unconventional design solutions and to develop awareness of the influence that architectural design has on the human mind and behaviour. Correspondingly, it is not unexpected that different emotions might be triggered by different shapes, as explored in work published by Nanda et al (Nanda et al., 2013). This clearly has important implications for architecture and design. For example, an awareness that sharp-edge-contours may elicit a response in the amygdala associated with the fight or flight mechanism should influence the architectural design of spaces where people are exposed to stressful situations (i.e. hospitals). The influence of design on behaviour and emotions also sets up new points of action for addiction prevention strategies as proposed by Chiamulera et al (Chiamulera et al., 2017). In their paper, the authors focus specifically on cue reactivity: Cue reactivity [is] the adaptive response to salient information in the environment...Salient information is that associated to drugs, sex, palatable food, and to a variety of natural and non-natural rewards. (Chiamulera et al., 2017) Chiamulera et al. propose using virtual reality to simulate a spatial context while controlling for different variables. The authors suggest design approaches that could be used to develop spaces
Sharp-edgecontours may elicit a response in the amygdala associated with the fight or flight mechanism
free of negative cues to help treat people with addictions. In this context, the researchers point to other work that has found associations between the interior design of a drinking venue and levels of alcohol intoxication, as well as a connection between specific urban features and substance abuse (Linas et al., 2015). For now, neuroarchitecture is a relatively new realm of research. However, early work in this field is very promising, particularly with regards to our understanding of neuroaesthetics. As the field of neuroarchitecture enters the next phase, the most promising results will only be achieved when a close collaboration between neuroscientists and architects is accomplished. For that, both groups need to be open to adaptation (Robinson, 2015). As Sarah Robinson puts it: Developing a shared philosophical framework could at once order the existing work, contribute to directing future research, and render that research more readily amenable to immediate application. (Robinson & Pallasmaa, 2015)
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You have never seen your eyes move in the mirror. Chronostasis—extension of the first impression so that what follows is invisible to the viewer. You have no use for motion blur and these are the fastest movements your body can make, over before you know you’ve made them. You jerk from word to word, twitch around a face as fast as you are able. Reflect on the speed at which things happen, your ratio of memories to years lived. Your choices are masked before you know you’ve made them. All to frame the sheet of iron outside my window. souvenir
A memory is reconstructed every time you tell it—copies of copies of copies. We have known for years that eyewitness testimony is unforgivably unreliable, and prone to influence accidental or otherwise. This is especially true of children. This does not change the fact that all sorts of things happen all the time, with only two people in the room. Who checks over what we build, what we carry?
THE LIES ARE COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE
OSCAR (2018-2020) BISMUTH
AUTISM: JOURNEY BEFORE DIAGNOSIS, (2018-2020) PHOTOGRAPHIC SERIES
THE FIRST TEAR (DETAIL) (2018-2020), BISMUTH ON VELVET
FRONTAL LOBE (2018-2020), BRONZE WITH CERAMIC SHELL
BRAIN STEM (2013), CHEMISTRY ON COPPER, 24X32”
FACTS ABOUT FICTION CHARLES FERNYHOUGH + KEITH OATLEY IN CONVERSATION WITH LYNDSEY WINSHIP
Two psychologists, and published fiction writers, have a unique perspective on what fiction is, the writing process itself, and how reading fiction might change you.
Keith Oatley is professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto who studies the psychology of emotions and the psychology of fiction. Charles Fernyhough is a professor of psychology at Durham University, where among other things he leads the interdisciplinary Hearing the Voice project, investigating auditory and verbal hallucinations (Hearing the Voice | Interdisciplinary voice-hearing research, 2020). As well as authoring numerous books on their academic subjects, both are published novelists. Oatley’s first novel The Case of Emily V won a Commonwealth Writers Prize (Oatley, 2006). Fernyhough’s fiction includes 2012’s A Box of Birds, whose protagonist is a neuroscientist with a stubbornly materialist worldview (Fernyhough, 2012). ‘Writing pushes buttons that academia definitely can’t get anywhere near,’ says Fernyhough, explaining fiction’s pull. ‘It’s the most intellectually rewarding and exciting thing I’ve ever done, a workout for the entire mind, heart, body and soul.’ Seisma joined Oatley and Fernyhough on
a group call to talk about the power of fiction and their careers combining storytelling with science. Lyndsey Winship: One of the influential themes in your work, Keith, is the idea that fiction is a simulation of reality. Let’s start there. Keith Oatley: The word fiction comes from Latin, meaning ‘something made’ and people think ‘made up’. But fiction isn’t made up. It’s constructed from things that we know. It’s about what we human beings are up to with each other, our intentions and emotions. Fiction is about making a kind of simulation, so that we can think about these interrelations (Oatley et al., 2018). Charles Fernyhough: Your work on this has been really inspirational over the years. People ask, what’s the relationship between writing fiction and doing science. Is writing a scientific process? I think it’s more like engineering, or software design – when you’re writing, you’re writing a code for that simulation, which then goes into somebody else’s head and the whole idea is that it does certain
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C harles F ernyhough
© B en G ilbert , W ellcome
K eith O atley
© K eith O atley
things in that person’s head and in their heart and lays certain emotional mines that you hope will go off at the appropriate moment. KO: But whereas in a computer program you have to make sure every little bit of code is right, a piece of fiction is a set of suggestions, it’s about 20% the author and 80% the reader.
Chekhov story changed their personality a little bit, in a measurable way (Djikic et al., 2009). It wasn’t by persuasion, because each person changed in their own way. So unlike advertising, where you’re trying to persuade everyone to think the same, art enabled people to think for themselves and I think that’s the central quality.
LW: What kind of responses might these simulations elicit in the reader? KO: We’ve got a little research group here in Toronto: Raymond Mar, Maja Djikic and me. We were the first people to pose the question: is reading fiction any good for you? What are the effects of reading fiction? In our first study we found that people who read fiction [versus non-fiction] are better at understanding others and have more empathy (Mar et al., 2009). We also did a study where we asked people to read Anton Chekhov’s short story The Lady with the Dog (Chekhov, 1899) or a non-fictionalised version of the story. Before people started reading we asked them about ten emotions they were feeling and assessed their personalities. The people who read the [fictional]
LW: Do we know what the underlying mechanism for that might be? KO: Here we come to the neuroscience. Raymond looked at all the fMRI results that had been published and found that the parts of the brain responsible for thinking and understanding other people are also the bits of the brain that get activated when you’re reading fiction (Mar, 2011). So, what fiction is about is understanding people. CF: It makes perfect sense to me that we engage so-called ‘theory of mind’ areas when we’re thinking about other people in fiction. I find it quite amusing when the media gets a hold of it and they tell us, ‘Neuroscientists have shown that reading is good for you!’ or, ‘Reading changes your brain.’ Most people who engage with fiction know that reading
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fiction is good for you, they don’t really need it scientifically proven. That’s not to undermine the work of Keith’s team in any way; it’s more about the way it gets received in the wider world. Our assumptions about hierarchies of truth come out into the open. You can show something psychologically but when you show something in terms of what the brain’s doing, then somehow everybody thinks that’s more true. And in terms of the science and the statistics, it isn’t more true. In fact, the neuroscientific findings are less true, because they’re built on underpowered statistics. Any neuroscientist will tell you this. Most neuroscientific findings are blown out of all proportion by the media. KO: It seems to me that a scientific truth is mainly a truth of correspondence: I’ve got a theory and I want to do an experiment to see whether this theory and the observational outcome correspond. But fiction involves that truth and two others. One is a coherence truth, about how things make sense with one another, but there’s also a personal truth. When you engage with a book and it becomes insightful to you. We could call that resonance. Fiction isn’t only about one kind of truth. LW: Of course, you do work with neuroscience, Charles. You were involved in a study recently looking at the effects of reading direct and indirect speech. CF: Neuroscientist Bo Yao did some work showing there’s a difference to how the brain responds to two kinds of written stimulus: direct and indirect speech (Yao, 2011). The difference between Mary said, ‘The house is on fire’” versus Mary said that the house is on fire. Direct speech activates the part of the brain specialised in processing voices. We wanted to replicate those findings and build on them and look at direct versus indirect thought, to know if the same kind of effect held up. It turned out it didn’t. Thinking didn’t have the same perceptual quality, at least if you do what you really shouldn’t do, which is infer from the neuroscientific findings what someone’s experience is. We also found that the contrast between direct and indirect speech seemed to play out in the ‘theory of mind’ regions as well as the voice regions (Alderson-Day et al., 2016). So we’re only beginning to unpick this puzzle but it seems there’s something about processing direct speech that also involves
representing people’s intentions as well. KO: It’s very interesting. I was thinking a step further in a related direction about ‘free indirect style’ – when one is reading and isn’t sure whether a sentence is something an author says, or a narrator, or a character, or a thought. That’s something Jane Austen cultivated (Oatley, 2016). LW: Those findings tally somewhat with previous research showing that while the motor cortex is activated when reading action words, the olfactory cortex is activated when reading about smells. CF: It generally fits with Keith’s idea about fiction as simulation. You take information off the page which allows you to build a simulation of that particular world and that includes all those sensory details and the way your brain represents it and processes the information. LW: When it comes to writing your own fiction, are you putting your research into practice? KO: What I’ve tried to do in my scientific work and in my fiction is to bring the two a bit closer together. To make a piece of psychology read a bit more like a novel or short story and make my fiction psychological. Because at the centre they’re both about the same thing, which is something like: whatever are we up to together, us human beings? CF: The creative writing teaching I have done has specifically looked at how processes of reading and writing fiction are underpinned by psychological principles. But when I’m actually writing, I’m not focusing on the mechanism. I don’t think it would be particularly helpful to one’s work to be constantly thinking about what one’s brain is doing. LW: did some interesting work, Charles, on writers hearing the voices of their characters talking to them. What did you find? CF: We found that these writers were gloriously different (Foxwell et al., 2020). Some would say, yes, they hear the characters’ voices as if there was someone sitting in the room with them, while others soundly rejected the suggestion. The most common answer is for writers to say they feel like they’re eavesdropping on their characters, not talking to them directly. We found interesting things relating to characters’ agency. A writer might commonly feel in control
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of their character at the outset and then at a certain point, probably the point in which the book really takes off, the character starts to do their own thing and will pull the story in directions they hadn’t seen coming. KO: Of course the characters do stuff on their own. How could it be otherwise? It’s not that you’ve got a puppet on a string. When I wrote my first novel I felt I fell in love with these two protagonists and I got very interested in them and what they were up to. LW: The Hearing the Voice project works with people with troubling auditory hallucinations. Is there a parallel between authors’ characters speaking to them and other kinds of voice hearing? CF: We study people who really do hear voices, an experience that can be highly distressing, and there are examples of writers who do hear voices. Some writers have a highly agentive voice that really seems to be doing its own thing and has a vivid auditory perceptual quality to it, but on the whole they’re in control of that, it’s part of the process, they value it, make their living from it. But we found it quite helpful to show this back to people who are distressed by hearing voices. Some have said as voice hearers they find it liberating to know that these writers have experiences that are similar to theirs, but they just deal with them differently. We’ve done some work with spiritualists, who hear dead people talking to them, and they also find the experience, on the whole, quite positive. LW: Do you think it’s the same neural mechanism for all of these groups, just a different interpretation? CF: It’s more complicated because for people with psychosis, although their voices can be neutral or even positive, on the whole what’s distressing is that the voices are saying unpleasant things. We don’t really know very much about how voices work in the brain, and I’m quite wary of going down that route. It’s back to the idea of neuroscientific truth. LW: On the neuroscience front, you’ve been involved in looking at reality monitoring in the paracingulate cortex, is that right? CF: Yes, some people with severe mental illness do seem to have a different kind of neurological set up that makes it more likely that they will make a confusion between what really happened and what they imagined (Garrison et al., 2015). That’s been a very fruitful line of research, linked to the paracingulate sulcus, which we all differ on hugely, whether we’ve got this particular fold in the brain and how big it is. It seems to relate to the likelihood of making errors about what’s real and what’s imagined (Garrison et al., 2019). LW: For most of us, in reading fiction, we’re choosing to cross that boundary, to make the imagined feel real. KO: When you’re reading – this goes back to empathy – you take on something to do with the character’s intentions and make those intentions your own. And as you go through the story and circumstances change, you feel emotions, and they’re not the character’s emotions, they’re your own. LW: What do you think are the next interesting questions to be studied in the realm of fiction? KO: At the moment I’m very interested in Dante’s Divine Comedy, because he was the first person to depict ordinary people suffering, not just kings and warriors. And these ordinary people are experiencing the consequences of their actions on other people. This issue of the consequences of actions is an important direction in psychological research at the moment. It seems to me the most important piece of psychological research this century is Michael Tomasello’s work on social cognition (Call & Tomasello, 2003), and that’s what Dante was doing: seeing people experience the effects they had on other people. CF: Writers have been ahead of the game on that ever since the birth of the novel, arguably since the birth of romance, around the twelfth century. The literary people have got a good 800 years on the scientists. That’s one reason why these questions really benefit from an interdisciplinary approach and point of view, because you’re always going to learn things from literary scholars, artists, humanities, you would not be able to come up with on your own as scientists.
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Midday. My baby son attends the school of sleep under white noise, blankets he colour of cartoon tears. He is a bad student, babbling and trilling, poking his feet through the bars, strangling his toy panda. The monitor reports him: white and lilac, floundering with fuzzy, underwater calm. He fails so happily, lithe on his mattress, shrugging off stillness. Christ, so much to regulate, so much to forget: the sun-daubed nursery the gorgeous verticals. He has to slow his heartbeat, calm his limbs, lid his eyes with their soft hoods, accept the red-black static under.
I have nothing to teach him. At night when I play dead on the cool eiderdown I have to visit every room inside my brain, draw the sashes, check, then double check, mad guest in a sea-facing house that creaks with the earth’s tides where men move in the empty beds and light cannot be dammed. I have to turn off every switch, unplug my fire-risk thoughts, slam doors of cupboards jammed with good intentions, laundered, folded lies, self-assembly fears. I must learn to walk the corridors of my steady breath, ignore the human sounds that filter through the walls and when the shapes call from the darkness with my son’s voice, don’t turn.
SCHOOL OF SLEEP
LITERARY ARTS INTERVIEW
A PARTLY-FOUND HYBRID COLLISION
TANIA HERSHMAN THE MONKS HAD CONDITIONED THEIR BRAINS TO TUNE INTO HAPPINESS
PART 1: OCTOPUS
My octopus has ten thousand neurons in each semi-independent arm, more together than make up what we’d call her brain. One school of thought is that they were needed to manage, to control the octopus’s unique body shape, and then perhaps like us when her neurons started talking, unexpected benefits arose: curiosity, imagination, these things we call intelligence.
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PART 2: HUMAN It is probably relevant that it is the right hemisphere that controls conjugate eye movements, that is, that makes the two eyes move together, leading to the interesting thought that it may be the right hemisphere that also keeps the hemispheres together, in the interests of a whole world of experience, rather than allowing the left hemisphere wilfully to go its own way. Certainly there is plenty of evidence that the right hemisphere is important for creativity, which given its ability to make more and wider-ranging connections between things, and to think more flexibly, is hardly surprising. But this is only part of the story. Both hemispheres are importantly involved. Creativity depends on the union of things that are also maintained separately – the precise function of the corpus callosum, both to separate and connect; and interesting division of the corpus callosum does impair creativity. Because the right hemisphere makes infrequent or distantly related word meanings available, there is increased right hemisphere involvement when generating unusual or distantly related words or novel uses for objects. This may be one of many aspects that tend to associate the right hemisphere with a freer, more ‘creative’ style. The right anterior temporal region is associated with making connections across distantly related information during comprehension, and the right posterior superior temporal sulcus may be selectively involved in verbal creativity. If it is the right hemisphere that is vigilant for whatever exists ‘out there’, it alone can bring us something other than what we already know. The left hemisphere deals with what it knows, and therefore prioritises the expected – its process is predictive. It positively prefers what it knows. This makes it more efficient in routine situations where things are predictable, but less efficient than the right wherever the initial assumptions have to be revised, or when there is a need to distinguish old information from new material that may be consistent with it. Because the left hemisphere is drawn by its expectations, the right hemisphere outperforms the left whenever predictions is difficult. Events anywhere in the brain are connected to, and potentially have consequences for, other regions, which may respond to, propagate, enhance or develop that initial event, or alternatively redress it in some way, inhibit it, or strive to reestablished equilibrium. There are no bits, only networks, an almost infinite array of pathways. Thus, especially when dealing with complex cognitive and emotional events, all references to localisation, especially within a hemisphere, but ultimately even across hemispheres, need to be understood in that context. We have to find a way of fixing it as it flies, stepping back from the immediacy of experience, stepping outside the flow. Hence the brain has to attend to the world in two completely different ways, and in so doing to bring two different worlds into being. In the one, we experience – the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the other we ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But it also enables us for the first time to know, and consequently to learn and make things. This gives us power. We cannot look at the world coming into being without the brain, without that qualifying the world in which the brain itself exists; our understanding of the brain’s ways of understanding alters our understanding of the brain itself – the process is not unidirectional, but reciprocal. If it runs out that the hemispheres have different ways of construing the world, this is not just an interesting fact about an efficient information-processing system; it tells us something about the nature of reality, about the nature of our experience of the world, and needs to be allowed to qualify our understanding of the brain as well.
PART 3: CONDENSATION
the right hemisphere makes the two eyes move together in the interests of a whole world of experience. creativity depends on the union of things that are also maintained separately – the precise function of the corpus callosum, both to separate and connect. there is increased right hemisphere involvement when generating unusual or distantly related words or novel uses for objects. If it is the right hemisphere that is vigilant for whatever exists ‘out there’, it alone can bring us something other than what we already know. Events anywhere in the brain are connected to, and potentially have consequences for, other regions, which may inhibit it, or strive to reestablished equilibrium. the brain has to attend to the world in two completely different ways. In the one, we experience – the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux. In the other we ‘experience’ a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities on which predictions can be based. our understanding of the brain’s ways of understanding alters our understanding of the brain itself. it tells us something about the nature of reality
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PART 4: EXCISION
the right makes the two eyes move together in the interests of a whole world of experience. creativity depends on the union of things that are also maintained separately – the precise function of the , both to separate and connect. there is increased right involvement when generating unusual or distantly related words or novel uses for objects. If it is the right that is vigilant for whatever exists ‘out there’, it alone can bring us something other than what we already know. Events anywhere in the are connected to, and potentially have consequences for, other regions, which may inhibit it, or strive to reestablished equilibrium. the has to attend to the world in two completely different ways. In the one, we experience – the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux. In the other we ‘experience’ a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities on which predictions can be based. our understanding of the ways of understanding alters our understanding of the itself. it tells us something about the nature of reality
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PART 5: OCTOPUS/HUMAN COLLISION
the right My octopus has ten thousand neurons makes the two eyes move together in the interests of a whole world of experience. creativity depends on the union of things that are also maintained separately – the precise function of the in each semi-independent arm, more together , both to separate and connect. there is increased right than make up what we’d call her brain. involvement when generating unusual or distantly related words or novel uses for objects. If it is the right One school of thought is that they were needed to manage, to control that is vigilant for whatever exists ‘out there’, it alone can bring us something other than what we already know. Events anywhere in the the octopus’s unique body shape, and then perhaps like us - are connected to, and potentially have consequences for, other regions, which may inhibit it, or strive to reestablished equilibrium. the when her neurons started talking, unexpected benefits arose: has to attend to the world in two completely different ways. In the one, we experience – the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux. In the other we ‘experience’ a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities on which predictions can be based. our understanding of the curiosity, imagination, these things ways of understanding alters our understanding of the we call intelligence. itself. it tells us something about the nature of reality
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PART 6: RESULT
the octopus has ten thousand neurons
eyes move together
in the interests of a whole world of experience creativity the union of things that are also maintained separately semi-independent arm separate
her brain when generating unusual related words or novel uses
for objects school of thought needed to manage vigilant for whatever exists ‘out there’ it alone can bring us something other than what we already know like us, other regions
inhibit or strive to reestablish equilibrium Her neurons started talking unexpected benefits arose: imagination, our understanding of intelligence tells us something about nature reality
Sources Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey Smith The Master and His Emissary by Ian McGilchrist The Intention Experiment by Lynne McTaggart
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LITERARY ARTS INTERVIEW
REASON + RHYME HELEN MORT + TANIA HERSHMAN
What lies behind our responses to poetry and how does the process of poetic writing affect our brains? We spoke with two poets to find out how they experience both the writing and reading of creative literary works.
Poetry can mean different things to different people. According to Wordsworth, ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’ Emily Dickinson defines it this way: ‘If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry.’ For Dylan Thomas, ‘poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing.’ In this issue, we have commissioned exciting new works from Tania Hershman and Helen Mort, both writers with a science background. Poetry offers a world of diverse forms and experiences. Take a single glance at the pieces written by Tania Hershman and Helen Mort [pages 89-95], and you’ll see that diversity in full bloom. Hershman’s piece is complex and transitional in form, while Mort’s poem appears more structured. Yet, both poems generate fascinating impressions when read through the lens of neuroscience. So, does poetry feed on
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imagination? And how might poetry engage with science? Neuroscience thrives on formal definitions, because independent labs need to distill the same concepts in order to objectively study them. By contrast, poetry is tough to define. Hershman says: ‘everything is poetry, everything is story, and everything is part-fiction, part-non-fiction.’ Mort, meanwhile, takes a different approach. To her, poetry is ‘a dance between the known and the unknown, both dancers wearing blindfolds.’ Without a widely-agreed definition, neuroscientists simply have to rely on whatever their participants are thinking when they hear the word “poetry”. If researchers want to study the brain of a poetry reader, they might ask people to read poems on a screen inside a brain scanner. If they want to study the creation process, their best hope is to ask people to write poetry in a brain scanner instead. These methods might sound tricky, but the results are fascinating.
H elen M ort © E mma L edwith
The Brain on Poetry In 2017, a study in Germany examined how the brain reacts to poetry (Wassiliwizky et al., 2017). The researchers were interested in peak pleasure sensations—sensations such as ecstasy or “chills”—that many people report when they come across a poignant piece. They recruited eighteen participants and asked them to read from a selection of poems while lying in an fMRI scanner. Whenever participants experienced chills, they would let the experimenters know by pressing a button. The imaging data showed that poetry could ignite the brain’s most ancient reward circuitry. When people experienced chills, goosebumps would sprout on their skin, and their brains would become more active in areas such as the precuneus and the caudate nucleus. The precuneus has been linked to visual mental imagery (Cavanna & Trimble, 2006), suggesting that people may experience powerful and relatable visuals when they connect with poetry. The caudate nucleus is buried deep within the brain, and it releases dopamine during primal experiences of pleasure such as those during feeding (Small et al., 2003).
T ania H ershman © N aomi W oddis
All of this shows that poetry isn’t just an intellectual pursuit; it’s a bliss factory. The poets’ minds also tell an interesting story. One study suggests that when writing poetry, an individual’s brain turns down its cognitive control systems—systems that usually keep attention focused on goals and plans (Liu et al., 2015). This allows the mind to navigate freely in unusual territory, inspiring unique modes of expression and new connections between concepts. Cognitive control systems are active when a poet revises his or her poetry, as they engage a more critical and analytical mindset to polish their creation. This distinction between a generative mode and a revisionary mode in the brain may apply more broadly to a writer’s process. For example, imagining a reader’s reaction requires a theory of the mind: the ability to predict other people’s behaviour by inferring their mental states (Gallager & Frith, 2003). Theory of mind is essential for many writers. For Helen Mort, it’s essential when she is revising a poem, but not necessarily when she is generating a first draft. ‘I have to keep the reader’s cognitive journey to the back of my mind when I’m actually writing
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This distinction between a generative mode and a revisionary mode in the brain may apply more broadly to a writer’s process because it would take me out of the immediacy of the writing experience,’ Mort says, ‘but perhaps that comes in more when I’m editing.’ A theory of the mind is essential for people to understand each other, and it may rely partly on mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire both when a person performs an action and when a person watches another person performing the same action. These unique cells offer a pathway for an individual’s brain to simulate another person’s experiences (Gallese & Goldman, 1998). When a poet imagines how a reader will respond to his or her piece, they are vicariously playing out their audience’s emotional reactions. And when the reader experiences the piece, the mirror neurons simulate the meaning behind the poet’s words leading the reader to embody the same emotions. In other words, poets are masters in puppeteering a reader’s mirror neurons. ‘I adore the science of mirror neurons,’ Tania Hershman says. ‘Isn’t it what we are always doing when we write fiction and poetry – we are inviting the reader to feel something through words, we are pricking their mirror neurons?’ Much of the beauty of poetry also comes from its openness to alternative interpretations by different readers. Hershman fully embraces this uncertainty as part of her process: ‘two readers can have very different - sometimes opposite - reactions to the same piece: one might find it deeply disturbing, one funny and joyous. So I have also learned to let go, after it’s published it’s not mine any more, I have no control.’ A poet cannot rely on a strict formula each time they start a new piece. The process is dynamic, creative, and at times, unexpected. ‘I can never really reverse engineer my process,’ Mort explains,
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‘because there is always some point where I feel “ambushed” by something in the poem.’ Hershman agrees and explains that she never approaches a new poem with a strict plan in mind. For her, the process evolves as she engages with it, and she feels that her subconscious plays a major role in finding the right words. ‘Perhaps there is never ever a “right” word or phrase,’ she explains. ‘We are all doing the best we can to express, share and make connections.’
The Neuroscience Behind Tania Hershman’s, ‘The Monks Had Conditioned their Brains to Tune into Happiness’ Hershman’s piece is full of surprises; the reader witnesses a process of creation unfold. Each stage of the work reveals two separate texts converging to form a hybrid; charting a collision between human and octopus. Part 1 begins with one of Hershman’s own poems exploring the neural structure of octopi. Text cascades down the page, mirroring the way an octopus might move. For many people, octopi appear almost extraterrestrial, and their contrast with humans makes them great candidates for Hershman’s collision. The alien structure of the initial octopus poem is markedly different from the more familiar anthropocentric line breaks and grammar of the second prose part. Part 2 is made up of extracts from the non-fiction book, The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, and those extracts contemplate the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Hershman is fascinated by octopi and their quirks. An octopus has around 500 million neurons
in its body, and around two thirds of those are found in its eight arms (Hochner, 2012). The fact that an octopus has vastly more neurons in its arms than its brain intrigues Hershman. She finds it provocative to consider that their arms may be ‘almost semi-autonomous. Writing about octopi had made me reflect on human-ness,’ she explains, ‘so I liked the idea that a neuroscience-themed piece would not just stick to the human, but that I could widen it out and see what happened when human met octopus!’ So her inter-species collision began. Through a process of condensing text, slicing fragments, and mixing phrases, she ended up with a coherent piece, the final stage culminating with an insight that studying our own imaginations informs us about the nature of reality. The human brain is a magnificent storyteller, and a person’s sense of reality is merely whatever their brain pieces together. In telling a story, the brain continuously gathers and processes information throughout daily life, but that information is often incomplete. For example, everyone has a spot in their visual field where they are technically blind. The location at which the optic nerve meets the eye contains no visual receptors, and yet, nobody notices a dark patch in their visual field. The brain makes assumptions about what should be in that space, based on all of the available visual data it has access to from surrounding retinal receptors, and offers the viewer an uninterrupted visual field by filling in the hole (Spillman et al., 2006). Hershman’s poem draws attention to the brain’s uncanny ability to fill in blanks, predict what comes next, and, ultimately, provide the story. Hershman is a rapacious reader and much of her inspiration comes from the diverse topics she delves into. When she comes across two remarkable but disparate sources of text, she can’t resist the temptation to hurl them together and examine the result. ‘I am a fan of the idea of collision,’ she says, ‘smashing together two different sources of inspiration, like the Large Hadron Collider does with protons, and seeing what emerges.’
The Neuroscience Behind Helen Mort’s, ‘School of Sleep’ An emotional journey through the jitters of bedtime, Mort’s poem is filled with sensation and nuance. Mort sets up two columns of text—one dedicated to her son’s sleep, and another dedicated to her own—as she works through the vicissitudes of trying to fall asleep. The idea came to her while listening to a podcast. ‘I found an interview on the neuroscience of sleep that really stuck with me,’ she explains. ‘It connected with my own life because I’ve been very sleep-deprived since my son was born in late 2018! I began thinking about how babies have to learn how to go to sleep.’ There’s still a lot of uncertainty in neuroscience about the primary purpose of sleep. One dominant theory suggests that sleep is primarily about learning (Wang et al., 2011). During the day, people navigate the world and pick up useful bits of information along the way. Some of this information is valuable and worth retaining in memory, while other information may be a waste of time and energy. During the restful downtime of sleep, the brain sorts through this news, and reinforces important neural connections so that valuable information can be stored in memory. This is exactly why people learn less effectively when they are sleep-deprived (Stickgold et al., 2000). According to this learning theory, sleep really does act like a school. The brain enters sleep class, works through some prearranged routines, and comes out slightly brighter the next day. The problem is that many people struggle to get to this class on time. Insomnia is a prevalent health concern, with around 25% of adults feeling dissatisfied with their sleep and 10-15% of adults expressing concern about the daytime consequences of their sleep difficulties (Morin & Benca, 2012). For Mort, sleep difficulties naturally came with motherhood. ‘When my little boy was very young he was a terrible sleeper and napper compared to other babies that I knew,’ she says. ‘I ended up doing quite a lot of anxious, middle-of-the-night
Mort’s poem is filled with sensation and nuance
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reading about what happens when a child goes to sleep. This made me quite self-conscious about my own sleep.’ Eventually, her anxiety made it virtually impossible for her to sleep, even when her son was enjoying a satisfying nap. Mort’s poem brings out this sleep anxiety, and contrasts it with her son’s rather different issues with sleep. ‘I became interested in the idea that there are lots of things we have to learn to regulate in order to “switch off”,’ she explains. ‘And perhaps the “school” element of the poem is quite ironic because we don’t really have anyone external to teach us.’ In a sense, her own sleep problems emerge from knowing too much, while her son’s sleep problems emerge from knowing too little. In the poem, Mort illustrates her anxiety and her son’s innocence with unique metaphors and evocative language. Phrases such as ‘shrugging off stillness’ and ‘mad guest in a sea-facing house that creaks with the earth’s tides’ offer a new way of interpreting the familiar experiences of restlessness and worry. Clichés in writing have a weak impact on readers, because the brain is quick to adapt to repeated stimuli (Grill-Spector et al., 2006) – people no longer feel excited by a phrase when they’ve heard it many times before. This is exactly where a poet’s expertise in changing their audience’s perception comes in. They can represent experiences in novel ways, offering their audience refreshing perspectives and new sensations. As Mort puts it: ‘If I am writing about something very personal or particular, I often try to find
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a visual image or some other sense to help the reader empathise.’
Dancing Between the Known and the Unknown In their dialogue, Mort and Hershman described some of their reactions as readers rather than writers. ‘I thought it was fascinating to see how Tania used collage to defamiliarising effect,’ Mort says, ‘making me see the same words anew in different contexts.’ As with metaphors, the collision aspect of Hershman’s work helps readers to notice familiar concepts from novel angles. ‘I love the idea of defamiliarising,’ Hershman replies. ‘I have never used that word to describe my own work but I think it may be behind most of what I do across many forms.’ The imagery within Mort’s work was particularly exciting for Hershman. ‘Helen’s poem is marked by stunning images, and, as with all of Helen’s work, it gives more each time you read it,’ she says. ‘It’s very visual, I don’t have the experience of a sleeping baby but I could see this child so vividly.’ This is why theory of mind and mirror neurons are so relevant to poetry. Despite having no direct past experience to rely on when interpreting the sleeping baby, Hershman could convincingly simulate the experience simply through interpreting the evocative language. ‘I really like the layout of the poem too,’ Hershman continues, ‘the two parallel slim columns of text as if two beds side by side, the adult’s “bed” slightly longer.’
Hershman and Mort have several interesting things in common. For example, both writers like to move away from their desk when mulling over new ideas. ‘I often read widely around a theme and then go out for a run with those ideas in my head,’ Mort says. ‘I find that a useful way of navigating my initial thoughts.’ Hershman has a similar experience. ‘Very often, I daydream when I am out in the world, letting my brain drift off,’ she explains. ‘This is how new work comes to me when I am on a walk.’ They fervently agree that vigilance is the enemy of creativity. The science is also on their side here. People’s best creative insights often occur during moments of disconnect and mind wandering, rather than moments of attentive focus (Gable et al., 2019). Low-frequency brain waves, such as alpha and theta waves, commonly appear during states of relaxation (Vaitl et al., 2013). These brain waves are also associated with long-range interactions across the brain that are typically involved in top-down cognitive processes, essential for creativity (von Stein & Sarnthein, 2000). In other words, when people go out for walks, runs, and other activities
that relax their minds, they put themselves into a state conducive for creative insights. When Mort edits her work, she’s always asking whether readers will follow what’s going on. ‘That’s why it can be so helpful to have second readers who can identify points of confusion or unhelpful ambiguity,’ she explains. Hershman’s approach is different. She rarely shows her works-in-progress to other people. ‘It’s so much more for me about getting it down in a way that I am happy with,’ she says. ‘It still seems like a miracle when anyone who is not inside my head connects with what has emerged from my head!’ For both writers though, the first priority is the same: to write for themselves. When Hershman writes, she avoids the impulse to target specific emotions or experiences within her readers, leaving the reader to work out what a particular piece means to them. As she puts it: ‘my hope is that they feel something.’ Mort finds this an apt way to describe her own thinking too. ‘I love the idea of poetry as an invitation to feel something,’ she says. ‘That’s such a great and such a neat summary of what I hope I am doing when I send a poem out into the world.’
I love the idea of poetry as an invitation to feel something
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THEATRE + DANCE INTERVIEW
MIND IN MOTION GUIDO ORGS
What makes dance captivating and how does ‘liveness’ really engage the brain? We spoke to cognitive neuroscientist and contemporary dancer, Dr Guido Orgs, to find out more and to explore his own ground-breaking projects.
‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.’ -Martha Graham, Choreographer and Dancer To understand why we love dance and what we communicate with it has become a hot topic for Dr Guido Orgs. Though one might think non-verbal expression to be a more primitive form of communication, dive a little deeper into the phycological processes of the relationship between the performer and the spectator and you might find something quite revealing about why we consume the entertainment we do and how we relate to its contents, and further, what makes live performance so special. Ella K Clarke: Tell us a bit more about your background as a performer and how you came to train with reputed dance companies including NEUER TANZ led by VA Wölfl. GO: After my PhD, I had a choice to go into science or go into dance and then I was approached by NEUER TANZ. It was an easy choice as I knew
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IN CONVERSATION WITH ELLA K CLARKE
people in the group and loved their work; they’re quite a conceptual company so it was often dance without much dancing. EKC: What would you say your main influences are, both as a dancer and as a cognitive neuroscientist, and how have these influences shaped your work? GO: At the Folkwang University of the Arts I studied contemporary in the tradition of German dance theatre. Pina Bausch also studied there and I agree with her famous observation: ‘Dance starts where language stops.’ However, I don’t think that one form is better than the other. A lot of the cognitive neuroscience that exists in this particular field is done using ballet, perhaps because it is quite stylised and can be coded relatively easily. My approach is to use specific dance styles to answer specific questions. For example, some dance styles may be very useful to study how emotions are expressed through the body, others less so.
EKC: You have previously suggested that ‘due to greater familiarity with the choreographic process, expert dancers may be more strongly influenced by compositional structure whereas novice judgements may be more influenced by postural information.’ (Orgs et al., 2013) Have you found this to be the case? GO: In a follow up study to this, (yet to be published) we found that when professional dancers watch a performance, they seem to agree with the choreographer’s choices more than a novice spectator does, revealed in their behaviour and in their brain activations. To me, this makes sense as a demonstration of the benefits of shared knowledge for communication flow. In this instance, shared contextual knowledge and expertise make it easier for a professional dancer to understand what the choreographer is trying to communicate. Personally, I can’t undo my dance experience so I’m not able to study that, but I certainly find myself consciously taking the positions when I watch dance; I imagine what it might be like to perform the movements I see, and what intentions might have motivated them. EKC: ‘The summative aesthetic appreciation of a performance is related to specific time-sensitive relationships’ (Vicary et al., 2017) Can you elaborate on this relationship between performer and spectator? GO: Here we used a statistical analysis technique called Granger causality to assess how the dancers’ movement synchrony changed over time (let’s say over ten seconds). When we measured the data over time using smart watches, we were able to predict how much the audience enjoys watching the performance (which also varies over time). So, we can now say that for example, a change in synchrony produces an increase of enjoyment two seconds later. In other words, it is actually possible to quantify the relationship and communication between the performers and spectators in numerical terms during an ongoing live performance. And that’s exciting. EKC: This research also concluded that ‘if spectators did not form a strong and stable aesthetic evaluation, relationships between synchrony and enjoyment were spurious, or even reversed, without any influence of synchrony on spectator
G uido O rgs
arousal’ (Vicary et al., 2017). Can you elaborate on this behavioural coordination? GO: This temporal relationship between what happens on stage and what the audience experiences, with respect to changes in heart rate and aesthetic judgement was measured through a real-time finger-tracking interface on a tablet. We found that for performances where the audience had variability in their judgments, they were coupled in time to specific moments of the performance. When there weren’t temporal relationships between judgments and performance, we interpreted this as a sense of disconnect to the experience or without a strong reaction to its aesthetic. EKC: You have investigated ‘symmetrical’ and ‘asymmetrical’ sequences of movement in relation to aesthetic perception of human movement (Orgs et al., 2013). Could you explain the neurological effects both of these sequences have on the spectator? GO: That’s a study we did which was a lot less ecologically valid, and required that the subject sit in front of a computer and look at sequences of movement and body postures. We have to be careful to draw conclusions about why and how people enjoy dance because it wasn’t technically an actual dance performance. That said in this study we found, people with little or no dance experience preferred sequentially symmetrical dance sequences, that is, movement sequences
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that end the same way that they start. This idea that you reference what happens in the beginning, at the end. In music, it’s the A B A format, which is also often used in film or poetry. EKC: How might you explain the spectator’s preference for a bent leg (being of less effort to the performer) over a straight leg, and an elevated arm (of more effort) over a lowered arm (Orgs et al., 2013)? GO: That was one of the more puzzling findings. We presented people with seven still images of slightly differing dance postures, with some having arms at a 45° angle up or 90° down. We found that individuals had very strong preferences and that they didn’t like pliés. These preferences were very consistent as well, but didn’t directly relate to the moving sequences. Indeed, sometimes it is more about the order of movement and not the individual postures. I think we like to have strong and consistent preferences as we think it defines us and our taste in art. In this study, some of those preferences tended to be totally meaningless and not particularly artistic. What’s interesting too, is that there were also remarkable similarities in preference. Such findings challenge the idea that we all have very different individual taste. EKC: ‘Our findings show that enjoyment can increase or decrease with synchrony’ (Vicary et al., 2017) In relation to choreographed variations in synchrony, are there other elements that can cause a decrease in spectator enjoyment as a result of synchrony? GO: Yes, certainly in my work. People often struggle when there is no story being told in dance. Dance without music is even harder because, normally, the music gives you expressive clues so you know if it’s happy or sad, major or minor – at least in the context of western style music. A lot of contemporary dance in particular doesn’t really have a clear story or protagonist in the same way as a ballet does so it’s more abstract and people tend to struggle with that. Another thing I found interesting is that people like to watch things that they can’t do, movement that is spectacular, high jumps or fast turns that require a lot of skill and flexibility. This relates to the idea that people prefer art that is difficult to make and requires a lot of effort on behalf of the artist.
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EKC: Your new project at Goldsmiths University Neurolive was awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant, and features mobile neuroimaging methods in performance-making to study the ‘live experience’. Can you predict how the performer/ spectator relationship might differ when live performance is perceived through a screen, as opposed to the experience in-person? GO: That is very much the purpose of the Neurolive research project. One of the main objectives of the project is to determine what makes choreography or a performance transfer easily across different media platforms. For example, audience participation is an important factor for live shows, though you could also argue, especially in terms of social media, that the audience is now able to participate in screen performances (without the social pressure of revealing themselves), so it’s an open question, to what extent participating audiences are necessary for a performance to feel live. In academia, there’s real excitement about online teaching because it can increase participation. But performing artists and scholars in theatre and performance studies are often more sceptical about the idea that live experiences can be generated online or virtually. In a way, I guess that is also my view. As an ex-performer I have an intuition that tells me that there is an element of performance that can’t be translated or mediated through a screen. One of the aims of the project is to see if this suspicion is correct. EKC: Are there any other projects you are currently working on in addition to Neurolive? What research topics are you planning to explore in the future? GO: In my work, I keep going back to this situation of a performer doing something for a spectator, meeting in a defined space and time. It’s quite a bizarre thing to happen if you think about. Why do people do dance and why do other people come to watch it, what is being communicated or exchanged in these situations? Clearly both parties get something out of that experience and I think that’s the bigger question that underlies a lot of my work.
THEATRE + DANCE
FOCUS + FLOAT MAX REVELL IN CONVERSATION WITH DWAYNICA GREAVES
In this conversation, we explore the creative impulses of dancer and choreographer, Max Revell, through a neuroaesthetic lens. The central question in mind: is this dancer’s creative process primarily convergent or divergent in nature?
Creativity is believed to involve two types of cognitive processes. The first, divergent thinking, entails insight and fast implicit associative thought processes. The second, convergent thinking, refers to deliberate and logical processing of information to create novel solutions. Neuroaesthetics has deconstructed art forms in a search of the purpose, production, and response to art from the perspectives of artists and audiences. Here, we un-pack the creative impulses of Max ‘Silk Boogie’ Revell, who teaches, performs and competes internationally in contemporary and street dance. Having trained with Plymouth based, Street Factory from the age of nine, Max went on to study at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, and in April 2019, participated in and won the popular television contest BBC Young Dancer, shooting his name into stardom. Dwaynica Greaves: I’d like to start by asking, what is the ‘purpose of dance’ for you?
Max Revell: I don’t think dance has to have a purpose, but if I had to give it a purpose, I would say it is about conveying a range of ideas through movement. Whether the ideas are political, social, or based on what you find visually interesting, I think all are valid. Personally, I’ve never made something with a specific demographic in mind, but if someone has those numbers I’d love to know. DG: This wide definition indirectly points towards a divergent element to dance, as it shows a wide scope of direction. Another divergent element is that choreographers fuse fields across and outside performing arts into their works. Which fields have you fused? MR: As of yet, I’ve only worked with film or photography but I have an upcoming project where I plan to project drawing, sketching, and painting onto the dancer as they explore different stages of their life. Also, I would love to work with a three-dimensional substance such as clay as it is a physical substance
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that a dancer can hold and cover themselves in. As a choreographer, it is important to look outside of light and music to explore the various tools you can use in your piece. DG: How would you describe your creative process? Does it follow a divergent or convergent pattern across pieces? MR: My creative process isn’t strictly chronological – it differs every time. Usually, I start with a prop or a style of movement and play around with the textures, then I build the story and character. I never try to finish a piece in my head as it may lead to disappointment, so I trust the process, knowing that it will eventually flow from the beginning, middle to end, then I flesh it out. DG: This really shows how important it is to have a balance of structure, but space for exploration. Having to make these technical decisions must require a place conducive for such thought. Is there a specific place where you are at your most creative? MR: Sometimes I am at my least productive when I’m in the studio – I can’t sit down for an hour and try to think of ideas. I believe that ideas come to you when you are not looking for or thinking about them, I can be on the bus in random thought and suddenly feel inspired.
However, there are times when social influences may have a convergent effect on our creativity. Sternberg and Lubart, spoke about the ‘Investment Theory of Creativity’, according to which, artists buy low and sell high, meaning creative work is not about what is popular now, but what can be popular in the future (Sternberg & Lubart, 1992). Do you think this is reflected across the arts? MR: In some cases, art is about what people will want in the next five years rather than now because it can change every week. This can be seen historically: some artists are not able to sell high as their work could be argued to be ahead of their time, posthumously the world realises how revolutionary their work was. But, it’s good to not let this influence one’s work as it is important to create independently from external opinion; not all your work has to be popular.
My creative process isn’t strictly chronological
DG: That reminds me of a theory known as Blind Variation and Selective Retention (Campbell, 1960). This theory posits that creative ideas are blind, which means that they are unplanned, and selectively retained as we progress over time. What are your thoughts on this? MR: This is true for me because, as I said previously, I come up with most of my ideas when I’m not being creative. It’s like going to sleep: if you try to fall asleep, you’ll never get there, but if you let it come naturally, you’ll get there. DG: It seems as if you’re implying that one of the keys to divergent thinking is to be open to multiple sources for inspiring creative thought.
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DG: Now, moving from theories into scientific research, it has been revealed that personalit y can af fect creativity. Would you say aspects of your personality cause you to be more divergent or convergent when choreographing? MR: I have attention deficit disorder, which is like a superpower when it comes to being a dancer because I find it difficult to stay still, I don’t get tired as easily, and I’m always ready to put my energy into something – my mind is always there. But the disorder can also hinder me at times as I get easily distracted. So, it’s both a good and bad thing in terms of creative impulse. DG: Procrastination may show that creative processes slide back and forth on a spectrum, ranging from divergent to convergent to complete mind-block. Nevertheless, you’ve been able to push through and complete work. When looking back on your completed work, what are the significant differences across your thought processes? MR: When I make work about myself it is inspired by my own experiences; I can’t make a piece about
M ax R evell © M onika C iunkaite
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M ax R evell © M onika C iunkaite
something I have not personally experienced. In contrast, when I make pieces for others, the movement and stories come from them in order to create a more honest piece.
to, not only for shows, exhibitions or to be seen. There is more power in freely making work as it gives you the opportunity to improve as you build your creative thought.
DG: Now looking over your life so far, have your creative thought processes become more convergent or divergent? MR: My creative process was highly convergent because I spent a long time trying to dance like others, I used to choreograph what I thought people wanted to see. We tend to copy our teachers, people online and people that really inspire us. However, the big difference now is that I have learnt you have everything you need within yourself. The key is staying attuned to your body and your life experiences while finding your own way of moving; no one will be able to touch that.
DG: That links to the concept of ‘flow’; when one immerses themselves within an activity for its own sake, leading to a subsequently stronger concept of self (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). What is your experience of this? MR: There are times when I’ve been in the studio, so lost in flow I didn’t even notice the time. It feels like a pocket of time that has separated from everything else, like a dream, you feel like you spent three hours but it was ten minutes. What is also enjoyable is when you’re teaching and you see someone experience flow for the first time, or when you experience it whilst co-choreographing or performing a duet.
DG: I love the last thing you said about being attuned to your own body and life experiences. I believe that if a message is important to you, the fact that it meant something to you means you should express it in a way that is unique to yourself. Nevertheless, seeing various skills inspires artists to ‘enhance their creativity’. Do you agree with this concept? If so, which methodologies have you used to enhance the divergent aspects of your creativity? MR: I definitely think that creativity can be enhanced, I’m a big believer in practice. To enhance your creativity, make work just because you want
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DG: On the convergent aspects of creativity, research has revealed that aesthetic experiences can be universal and objective. This can be seen in dance competitions with panels and criteria. What are your views on the objective vs subjective element of dance competitions? MR: Dance competitions are partially valid, as I do believe there are subjective and objective elements to art. I’ve had to judge competitions based on criteria such as technical movement and performance technique. I then ask myself, what is performance? How do you give someone a score
Competitions are a useful tool for testing your skills and gaining constructive criticism
from 1-10 on performance? It’s such a weird territory and an endless debate. On the other hand, as a competitor, it is important to realise that the panel is comprised of people that have their own opinions, biases, and preferences, which they are trying to ignore to judge objectively but it is impossible to do that with art. Nevertheless, I think competitions are a useful tool for testing your skills and gaining constructive criticism.
DG: And what would you investigate in regards to the artist? MR: I would love to investigate the long-term effects of artistic training on the brain. What’s the progression? What part of the brain grows? What is different about it? Why does that difference exist?
DG: One benefit of such objective criteria is that scientists are able to deconstruct elements of dance to enable scientific research. Some might argue that this empirical exploration of art is dangerously convergent. What are your thoughts on this? MR: I think it is really progressive, as we are now able to understand and discover these constructs, we should continue to strip down everything for understanding. If there are people that don’t believe in scientific research of the arts I would ask, why? Surely you would want to know more about the audience’s aesthetic experiences during your performances? I definitely think it’s important. DG: If you had the opportunity to collaborate on a research project with me what would you investigate in regards to the audience? MR: I would love to research why non-experienced dancers can tell the difference between a beginner and an experienced dancer.
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THEATRE + DANCE TECHNICAL LOOK
UPONS THE STAGE The ability to be creative is rooted in our brains. But how do our brains use external or internal cues to create and perform something new? Here we explore this question with particular focus on Aristotelian tragedy and Shakespearean language.
The actions of musical improvisation, poetry composition, and even divergent thinking to craft dinner from leftovers in the fridge all involve remarkably similar patterns of brain activity and connectivity. In order to understand the neural correlates of these creative thought processes, we can first start with two primary brain networks essential for attention and cognition: i) the Default Mode Network (DMN) and ii) the Executive Control Network (ECN). These networks both span the fronto-parietal cortex, with the DMN consisting of regions along the midline-posterior-inferior area, and the ECN consisting of lateral-prefrontal regions and anterior-inferior regions of the parietal lobe (Beaty et al., 2016). The DMN is active when the mind is at rest and there are no externally presented cognitive tasks (Raichle et al., 2001). The DMN is also active when our brains have spontaneous and self-generated thoughts, such as during mind-wandering (Andrews-Hanna et al., 2014). This is our intellect
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turned inward, not attending to the immediate surroundings, but instead to the here and now (The MIT Press, 2019). On the other hand, the ECN is responsible for cognitive processes that require externally directed attention, including working memory (the shortterm memory needed to complete an immediate task), complex problem-solving and set-shifting between tasks (Beaty et al., 2016). Usually, the DMN and ECN have an opposing relationship. For example, during working memory processes the ECN shows increased activation while the DMN disengages and the brain suppresses all thoughts unrelated to completing the task at hand (Anticevic et al., 2012). However, when we are thinking creatively, especially when we need to simultaneously and near instantaneously evaluate numerous possible outcomes, there is a need for increased communication between disparate brain systems. As such, the DMN and ECN, which normally exhibit an antagonistic relationship, tend to cooperate remarkably during creative cognition and artistic performance (Beaty et al., 2016).
For example, a study by Liu and colleagues investigated brain networks of professional poets by asking them to 1) generate new poetry spontaneously and 2) revise their self-generated poems (Liu et al., 2015). During idea generation, activity in the DMN and ECN was anti-correlated. However, during idea revision, the activity of the two networks uncoupled, suggesting that evaluating and revising self-generated poetry involves increased cooperation of these otherwise competing neural pathways. From a historical perspective, poetry started thousands of years ago as an oral tradition in various civilisations around the world (Duiker & Spielvogel, 2013; Scheub, 1985). Knowledge passed onto subsequent generations through the wise words of poets (Vansina, 1985). A near-universal aspect of poetry is meter-repeated patterns of major beats, a stylised form of the rhythms of speech. Indeed, rhythm is a fundamental aspect of life (The MIT Press, 2019). The neural activity in our brain is characterised by pulsing neural oscillations, or brainwaves, that also have repetitive patterns (Mazaheri & Jensen, 2010). As discussed above, poetry engages the ECN and DMN in the poet/ performer. But, for the audience, recited poetry can act as a powerful stimulus for producing strong emotional responses, including chills and objectively measurable goose bumps that involve the brain circuitry of reward (Wassiliwizky et al., 2017). Wassiliwizky and his team demonstrated that the nucleus accumbens and the corrugator supercilli muscle are crucial when listening to poetry. The nucleus accumbens triggers our brain reward system and the corrugator supercilli muscle (the narrow facial muscle located at the medial end of the eyebrow) is associated with negative emotion. Both exhibited strong activity that correlated with sensations of chills and emotional arousal at the climax of the poem. The researchers suggest that this peculiar blend of aesthetic reward and negative
emotion reiterates what Friedrich Schiller defined as ‘the mixed sentiment of suffering and the pleasure taken in this suffering’, otherwise known as ‘being moved’ by poetry (Wassiliwizky et al., 2017). A theory on being moved or astonished by poetry dates back as far as Aristotle’s paradox of tragedy. Why is it that people enjoy watching tragedies? Aristotle used the word catharsis as a metaphor for the peculiar tragic pleasure we experience – the feeling of being washed or cleansed by a tragedy (Gilbert, 1926). For Aristotle, tragedy was itself a thing of beauty and pleasure (Janko, 1987). For example, the enduringly popular aria ‘Che farò senza Euridice?’ from the opera Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck, with a libretto by the poet Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, is one of the best examples of how pleasurable it is to view the grief of Orfeo upon seeing Euridice’s dead body. Through the act of catharsis, or emotional cleansing, we as observers become enlightened by the knowledge of suffering and the wisdom gained from that suffering (Trimble, 2007). With regards to tragedy, Aristotle explained that a ‘happy ending’ does not necessarily make us happy because at the end of the play the stage is often littered with bodies. Through this catharsis we feel cleansed by the shared emotion of experiencing the tragedy (Gilbert, 1926). In theatre in general, and in a tragedy in particular, we tend to re-enact the story of our origins as individuals, and the history of the ‘self’ (Arvanitakis, 2019). In Freudian theory, our whole mind is a divided entity characterised by principles of conflict and synthesis (Friedman, 2013). As such, theatrical enactment is dependent on memory and embroiled in conflict (Favorini, 2008). A tragedy is a purposeful mirroring of human experience which elicits both cognitive and emotional responses from the audience (Chasen, 2011). The aesthetic pain and emotional arousal triggered by
During idea generation, activity in the DMN and ECN was anticorrelated
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tragedies activates our endorphin system and increases our pain threshold (Dunbar et al., 2016). This happens because the same areas of the brain that support the experience of physical pain are also involved in mediating psychological pain (Dunbar et al., 2016). Tragic plots allow us to prepare for the worst and build our resilience. We don’t necessarily want to see ourselves in a tragic position, but we can train ourselves to observe and learn from a tragedy performance, which might reduce or minimise the pain we would actually feel if such a tragedy was to fall upon us (Valenzuela, 2018). Evolution has prepared our nervous system for survival and the maintenance and continuation of life (Berger, 2018). As Miguel de Cervantes said, ‘To be prepared is half the victory’ (de Cervantes, 2018). Studies have also shown that if the theatrical plot is too heavy and our minds try to wander away from the pain that is being re-enacted, there is actually increased activity in the DMN (Kucyi et al., 2013). Additionally, there is activation of the periaqueductal grey region of the brain, an endogenous, opiaterich region that mediates pain suppression (Kucyi et al., 2013). Tragedy is not just aesthetic pain. Aristotle and others also refer to a tragedy as inducing a sense of the sublime, awe, or grandeur (Trimble, 2007). Such overwhelming emotion is often
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the basis of great achievements, magnificent works, and mystical experiences (Wettstein, 2012). Researchers have found that these feelings of awe and wonder actually reduce activity in the DMN, leading to reduced focus and awareness of one’s self (van Elk et al., 2019). Such experiences are associated with diminished self‐referential processing and reduced mind‐wandering (or sponta-
Tragedy is not just aesthetic pain
neous self‐reflective thought), compared to being actively engaged in an analytical task (van Elk et al., 2019). A similar engagement in the listener is created by Shakespeare and his grammatical exploration of the language (Keidel et al., 2013). Shakespeare did this by changing words – adding prefixes and suffixes, connecting words together, borrowing from a foreign language, or simply inventing new words by freely
borrowing from and adapting the contemporary vernacular (McCrum, 2016). Not only that, but Shakespeare made extensive use of the functional shift, a rhetorical device involving a change in the grammatical status of words, e.g., using nouns as verbs (Thierry et al., 2008). By monitoring participants’ brain activity with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) as they read lines from Shakespeare’s plays, researchers have discovered that these functional shifts trigger a mental re-evaluation independent of the semantic process (Keidel et al., 2013). Sentences featuring functional shifts stimulate significant activation of brain areas beyond regions classically activated by typical language tasks, including the left caudate nucleus, the right inferior frontal gyrus and the right inferior temporal gyrus (Keidel et al., 2013). The Shakespearean functional shift also appears to activate the visual association cortex, that is, the ‘mind’s eye’, reflecting how the listener is forced to take on an active role in integrating and visualising the meaning of what is being said (McCrum, 2016). Keidel et al. were surprised to find additional activity in the right fusiform gyrus, which indicates non-verbal access to conceptual knowledge (Keidel et al., 2013). This mental imagery related to functional
shifts relies on accessing our short and long term memories (Shatek et al., 2019). Referencing one’s own memories to assess a Shakespearean play puts the individual at centre-stage. As described by the neurologist António Damasio, this state of consciousness and awareness is itself a definition of self (Damasio, 2012). Shakespeare not only captures fundamental concepts about the way our minds work (Parvini, 2016), he pushes the limits of our cognitive processing such that his storylines mesh with our own individual thoughts (Valenzuela, 2018). Take the example from Hamlet, ‘To say one…’, where Shakespeare uses ‘one’ as a binding agent between self and situation (Berry, 2016). In Hamlet’s mind, from the beginning of Act Five, Scene Two, there is a metaphoric realisation of the self as a duellist, a fighter (Berry, 2016). While viewing this performance, not only do we project into our own memories to find situations where we have been a fighter in life, but we sense the brevity of life and the unity of self more deeply: ‘A man’s life no more than to say “One”’ (Berry, 2016). This usage of open metaphors in poetry has been shown to stimulate divergent thinking (i.e., fluency, flexibility, or originality in problem-solving), and actually enhance our creativity (Osowiecka & Kolańczyk,
2018). The efficiency of divergent thinking is a key measure of idea generation (Baer, 1996). Through metaphors and analogies poetry contains remote associations, combining non-related notions
Mental imagery related to functional shifts relies on accessing our short and long term memories
in atypical ways. Making such remote associations requires rapid neural processing of semantic associations (Osowiecka & Kolańczyk, 2018). Not only does exposure to metaphors develop our creativity, but the live embodiment of a metaphor also enhances cognitive flexibility and creativity
(Wang et al., 2018). A study by Wang and colleagues investigated whether the experience of ‘breaking the walls’, the embodiment of the metaphor ‘breaking the rules’, could enhance creativity in participants (Wang et al., 2019). Virtual reality was used to simulate the scenario where people could ‘break the walls’ while walking into a corridor. Subjects were then asked to solve a creativity-demanding problem while wearing a functional NearInfraRed Spectroscopy (fNIRS) device to record their neural activity. Participants showed better creative performance in the ‘break-wall’ condition than in any of the other conditions (i.e., automatic door, no door at all), showing how the embodiment of a metaphor can boost the brain’s creative performance. Metaphors and poetic language are much more than acoustics. The ability to associate remote ideas, facts and elements in order to perceive the world around us is at the heart of creativity. As such, watching a good performance of Hamlet or Orfeo ed Euridice submerges one’s mind in deep cognitive stimulation and unlocks one’s creativity. Not only do we experience and build our own self along the way, but we strengthen our resilience and feel a sense of awe at the final curtain fall.
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still others require song to have syllabic diversity the repetitive and transformative patterns that define music which songs are songs and which are calls some groups are nearly voiceless almost all song is sung by male birds babblers, the scimitar babblers some owls occupy an acoustic niche the available frequency range is partitioned music reflects some pre-ordained harmony we can all sing we can all draw when I hear some harmonies I break down I feel the weave all the chancers I am not afraid the birds go on singing banal and profound wind riffing their breasts the surge to open their mouths louder and at a higher pitch in urban zones along the roadside there is a violent thrush I love it like my sons young birds learn outlines of songs from their fathers their mothers are filling holes with flesh seeds over generations birds form dialects research on parrots suggests nouns adjectives verbs can we recover vocal plasticity indulge us bickering uprising wings
Some text in this poem uses text from the Wikipedia entry on bird vocalisation.
THOUGHT-MRI (2020), ACRYLIC ON CANVAS, 36X48IN
FASHION + BEAUTY BRIEF LOOK
ENCLOTHED COGNITION Which areas of the brain engage when we sensorially experience clothes? Can the clothes we wear actually influence our cognitive behaviour and how might research in this field usefully impact fashion design?
Fashion can seem a frivolous thing. Veteran fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier once declared that the whole point of fashion is to make itself outdated (Nicklaus, 2012). We can easily associate this idea with fast-changing fashion trends. One season, amethyst-coloured jumpers are all the rage and then suddenly, everyone starts sporting terracotta scarves. In writing about the psychology of clothes, Flügel explains that clothes can be worn for decoration and can help individuals feel distinguished, setting themselves apart from others (Flügel, 1971). He also explains that clothes can serve a more fundamental role, being worn for modesty or protection (from the weather or more mystical dangers that may warrant a particular talisman). Human beings have understood from time immemorial the power clothes exert over others.
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For example, many civilisations from the ancient Chinese to the Elizabethans imposed strict laws on what different strata of society could and couldn’t wear so as to maintain strict social distinctions. (Proclamation against Excess of Apparel, n.d.) At any given moment there is a myriad of style makeover programmes on TV or books in print, giving advice about how to dress to impress or improve our self-esteem. One of the most famous examples is, appropriately, titled You Are What You Wear (Baumgartner, 2012). There is plenty of research documenting the influence clothing has on people’s perceptions of others towards the wearer. High school students’ dressing smartly are viewed as more academically able among peers and teachers (Behling & Williams, 1991). Teaching assistants who wear formal clothes are perceived to be more intelligent,
but less interesting than those who are dressed less formally (Morris et al., 1996). Clients are more likely to return to formally dressed therapists than to casually dressed therapists (Dacy & Brodsky, 1992). Appropriately dressed customer service agents elicit stronger purchase intentions than inappropriately dressed ones (Shao, Baker, & Wagner, 2004). While it is clear our clothing can have a profound effect how others perceive us, less is understood about the effect our own clothing can have on ourselves, and more specifically our minds. The brain is responsible for our understanding of the world around us. When we see something, for example a dress, the light reflected off the dress reaches our eyes and neural signals are sent to our occipital lobe (Arroyo et al., 1997), the area of the brain responsible for early processing of visual stimuli (Pinel, 2011). This first stage of receiving information is called sensation, but other parts of the brain are required to decode what we’re seeing (Braisby & Gellatly, 2012). The visual information we receive in our occipital lobe can communicate with our prefrontal cortex or temporal lobe, which handles auditory stimuli and facilitates memory formation, to determine that what we are seeing is called a ‘dress’, or that the dress has a colour and the name of this colour is ‘black’ (Rugg & Wilding, 2000; Shallice et al., 1994). However, merely identifying clothes and their colours is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how fashion affects our minds. In the twentieth century, psychologists started to investigate how clothing affects our own behaviour in a more methodical and scientific manner. Studies on de-individuation examined how wearing
Jean Paul Gaultier once declared that the whole point of fashion is to make itself outdated
Teaching assistants who wear formal clothes are perceived to be more intelligent
certain garments might influence a subject’s behaviour. Zimbardo found that people wearing a hood which hid their faces were twice more likely to deliver [fake] electric shocks than participants who were not (Zimbardo, 1969) and wearing a nurse’s uniform makes people less likely to administer these shocks (Johnson & Downing, 1979). Research from a colour psychology perspective showed that professional sports teams wearing black kit are more aggressive than teams not dressed in black (Frank & Gilovich, 1988). An important area of research which is highly relevant to our understanding on how our clothing affects our brains is ‘embodied cognition’. In broad terms ‘embodied cognition’ posits that it is not the brain alone that processes cognitive functions, indeed, the body as a whole is responsible for receiving, interpreting, and reacting to stimuli so as to successfully navigate our environment (Wilson, 2002). Drawing upon work on deinviduation and embodied cognition, psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky proposed a new term ‘enclothed cognition’ which describes the phenomenon that what we wear has a direct influence on our perceptions and actions (Adam & Galinsky, 2012). Enclothed cognition effects depend on two conditions – ‘first, the symbolic meaning of the clothing and second, the actual wearing of the clothes’ (Adam & Galinsky, 2012). Adam and Galinsky contrasted traditional theories of cognition which considered cognitive representations to be based on ‘amodal, abstract
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content’ with theories of embodied cognition that argued that cognitive representations derive from ‘modal, perceptual content that is based in the brain’s sensory systems for perception, action and introspection…’ Schematised physical experiences are stored as multimodal representations in memory and form an integral part in shaping cognitive representations of abstract concepts and so acquire symbolic meaning. ‘Thus, physical experiences can trigger associated abstract concepts and mental simulation through this symbolic meaning.’ (Adams & Galinsky, 2012) The two psychologists proposed that, just like physical experiences, the experience of wearing clothes triggers associated abstract concepts and their symbolic meanings in the wearer, that is, the clothing a person wears causes you to ‘emobdy’ the clothes. ‘Consequently, when a piece of clothing is worn, it exerts an influence on the wearer’s psychological processes by activating associated abstract concepts through its symbolic meaning – similar to the way in which a physical experience, which is, by definition, already embodied, exerts its influence.’ (Adam & Galinsky, 2012) To test this Adam and Galinsky initially conducted a pretest using an online questionnaire which determined that medical doctors are associated with a highly acute sense of attention and that white laboratory coats are associated with medical professionals. They then recruited students to participate in three different sets of tests. The first test examined whether wearing a lab coat influenced selective attention. One group of participants wore lab coats and another just their normal clothes. The first study comprised
50 Stroop tests: 20 incongruent tasks, where the meaning of letter strings interfered with the task of naming a colour, eg ‘RED’ was written in blue and ‘BLUE’ was written in red and 30 non-incongruent tasks, in which the meaning of letters strings did not interfere with the task of naming a colour (Stroop, 1935). Participants wearing lab coats made around half as many errors as those not wearing a lab coat on the incongruent tests whereas the two groups made the same number of errors on the non-incongruent tests. Adam and Galinsky concluded that wearing a lab coat leads to increased selective attention using a Stroop test. However, the two psychologists considered that physically wearing the clothes and their symbolic meaning were assumed rather than explicitly examined in this test and so in a second study they recruited three groups of people to test for heightened attention taking this into account. This time one group wore what was described as a doctor’s coat, another wore the same coat which was described as a painter’s (artist’s) coat and the last group wore no coat but was told to look at the doctor’s coat which lay on a table in front of them. Each group had to perform four visual search tasks in which they had to identify four minor differences between two seemingly similar images. The participants wearing the ‘doctor’s’ coat found more differences than the other two groups who found the same number of differences. This indicated heightened attention and Adam and Galinsky concluded that this result depends on whether a lab coat was worn plus its associated symbolic meaning of the item of clothing. (Adam & Galinsky, 20120)
Clothes can have profound and systematic psychological and behavioural consequences for their wearers
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The researchers were surprised that there was no difference between the non-wearers and those who wore a so-called painting coat given the fact that research on behavioural priming suggested that subjects primed with a doctor’s coat should demonstrate increased sustained attention. They suggested that perhaps the priming had not been strong enough so devised a third test taking this into account. Thus, before running the same heightened attention test as in experiment two, they asked all participants to write essays about their thoughts on the doctors’ coats. During the test itself, again some participants wore either the so-called doctor’s or painter’s coats. This time a third group of participants was instructed to look at a doctor’s lab coat, which was placed in front of them throughout the session. The group wearing the doctor’s coat showed the highest sustained attention; those who could see a doctor’s coat throughout the test but weren’t wearing it showed the next highest sustained attention, and those wearing the same coat but which was described as a painting overall demonstrated the lowest sustained attention. Adam and Galinsk y concluded that these findings lent initial support to their hypothesis that ‘clothes can have profound and systematic psychological and behavioural consequences for their wearers.’ Future research, they suggested, could examine
the effects of other types of clothing: might the robe of a priest make us more moral? Would a firefighter’s suit make us more brave? ‘Although the saying goes that clothes do not make the man,’ the researchers concluded, ‘our results suggest they do hold a strange power over their wearers.’ Subsequent research has built on and supported Adam and Galinsky’s theory of enclothed cognition. For example, wearing nursing scrubs leads to more empathic behaviour (LópezPérez, et al., 2016); wearing formal clothing is associated with enhanced abstract cognitive processing (Slepian et al., 2015) and wearing formal business attire led to students participating more actively in class than when they wore casual attire (Law & Istook, 2016). We have only just begun to explore the power of clothing and how it can alter our behaviour. The field is wide open for designers to work together with neuroscientists and psychologist to create clothes that not only could influence our behaviour but also cognitive well-being. Perhaps, after all, fashion is not as frivolous as we might think.
We have only just begun to explore the power of clothing and how it can alter our behaviour. The field is wide open for designers to work together with neuroscientists and psychologist to create clothes that not only could influence our behaviour but also cognitive well-being
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FASHION + BEAUTY BRIEF LOOK
BLENDED NOT BROKEN Fashion demands endless novelty and often involves twisting the influence of something previously created into something fresh and new. So, what neurological processes are at play in the work of fashion designers?
As the old adage goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In the fashion world, some may even beg you to leave the proverbial ‘it’ alone. ‘It’, in this case, is safe, time-honoured, revered. ‘It’ works and, because of this, the passing of the fashion baton from one creative director to another can provoke a severe case of separation anxiety. According to neuroscientist and author David Eagleman,‘the brain takes the path of least resistance because it’s most efficient.’ Familiarity becomes a crutch to the creative process because it does not require the brain to expend too much neural energy. By contrast, the quest for creativity implores us to stretch our minds beyond what is considered normal or expected. Furthermore, it asks that we take something that already exists and transform it into something new. After Phoebe Philo’s tenure at Céline, it was hard to imagine how the fashion house might alter
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under Hedi Slimane’s reign. During Philo’s time there, the brand had become a juggernaut, achieving cult status. Her followers became so deeply rooted in her vision, employing her style codes and multiplying in advocacy, they were dubbed the Philophiles, The brand became synonymous with the emancipated working woman, with architectural silhouettes and muted tones that amplified her brazen spirit. Upon the announcement of the removal of the iconic “é” – among a few other clear changes – the walls of the iconic fashion house came tumbling down to reveal a new era. The Celine that debuted in September 2018, had a resounding déjà vu effect. Each of the looks sashaying down the runway immediately referenced Slimane’s work with Saint Laurent, where he had also instigated a name change, dropping the Yves. It was signature Slimane: rambunctious, glitzy and taut. Shoulders were high and hemlines even higher.
This, at first glance, is the antithesis of Philo’s Céline. Although there is a huge contrast between Celine’s past and present, one cannot deny the common spirit of revolt shared by both designers. However, this theme is conveyed differently as they are unique individuals whose creativity is fuelled by their unique experiences. IMPLICIT VS EXPLICIT BRAIN SYSTEMS Neuropsychologist and professor, Arne Dietrich, describes how different types of creativity are regulated by two different brain systems: the explicit and the implicit. The explicit system is quite intricate and relies on the stimulation of the prefrontal cortex. Due to its vast processing needs and high cognitive function, it tends to run quite slowly. The implicit system is more agile and self-sustaining, thus built for efficiency. The more the brain is exposed to explicit tasks, the more these become etched in memory, thus relocating to the implicit system. The tasks essentially become second nature. Given how separate the two systems are, it is hard to explain clearly how a new task becomes an habitual one. Looking at the respective aesthetics and style codes of Philo and Slimane, there is a distinct tacit mood to their individual craft. Philo’s collections are imbued with a bold sense of feminism dating back to her time at Chloe (both as design assistant to Stella McCartney and as Creative Director). It is clear that her disdain for the sexualisation of women has propelled her vision. This is not something she would necessarily have to think about explicitly. It is one of a number of factors that formed the basis of her raison d’être. She has said: ‘Women should have choices, and women should feel good in what they wear.’
Hedi Slimane is synonymous with music. His collections are brimming with musical references, from Bowie and Jagger to his early noughties’ muse Pete Doherty. They are also influenced by his exposure to underground scenes in major cities like Los Angeles, Paris, London, and Berlin. These elements all form part of his implicit system. Even with his unmistakable aesthetic, he still pays homage to designers of yesteryear. This is evident in his reference to YSL’s Le Smoking in his Saint Laurent collections, as well as his incorporation of old Céline elements from founder Céline Vipiana’s era. These aspects require research and exploration, which are more explicit tasks. Novelty and relevance are at the cornerstone of creativity. Novel ideas are not necessarily original ideas. They are merely ideas that have been improved upon. In order to repurpose an idea that already exists, the human brain can utilise the three Bs: bending, breaking or blending. BENDING, BREAKING AND BLENDING When it comes to creative thinking, what, most crucially, separates human beings from animals is the ability to see something beyond its intended use. Where animals see a mere input and output, we see a pool of possibility between these two points. The concept of bending entails tweaking an existing idea. This can be done by changing the scale, an element, or silhouette of something that already exists. Imagine a pair of jeans made in the vision of Levi Strauss: functional and comfortable. They serve a utilitarian purpose. The only problem: from an aesthetic point of view they are quite usual and expected. If a designer were to bend a pair of jeans, they could perhaps replace buttons or a conventional
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zipper with an exposed zipper. Breaking entails taking something apart completely to create something new and sometimes unrelated. An example of this would be up-cycling a pair of jeans to create a patch denim tote bag. Blending involves using elements of two or more sources to create something new. An example would be Ksenia Schnaider’s asymmetrical jeans, an eighties’ skinny and seventies’ wide leg hybrid. Looking at Philo’s aesthetic over time, there is a clear development of her own personal emancipation and bravado. Since Chloe, her looks have become more refined and anchored in the unshakeable nature of everyday women. They have become less Boho and more chic. Constantly reducing and simplifying, her collections are wardrobes built over time, composed of investment pieces that can be shuffled around to create new looks. At face value, Hedi Slimane’s Celine may look like a shrine to
his previous works but there are visible blends such as YSL tailoring and attention to detail combined with rock ‘n’ roll freedom. Asked about his vision for Celine in an interview for vogue. com, Slimane says, ‘The goal is not to go the opposite way of their work either. It would be a misinterpretation. Respect means preserving the integrity of each individual, recognising the things that belong to another person with honesty and discernment. It also means starting a new chapter.’ He further explains how his vision for the brand is one of fluidity. This is evident in the creation of an unprecedented perfume line and a menswear collection that is unisex. He has reverted to the old Celine font and revived the original quilted Celine bag, which bears a resemblance to the Chanel Classic bag. In the words of former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer, Nathan Myhrvold, ‘To think outside the proverbial box you have to be willing to
be wrong. You also need to be willing to be right and yet have everyone think you’re wrong.’ Because of the no-frills approach of the maison during Philo’s tenure, Slimane really has carte blanche to push his own limits and create a new era. Creativity does not require a drastic departure from the old but rather a balancing act. It is true that there is no need to tamper with something that actually works. However, fashion is propelled by the zeitgeist. Naturally, it is as fleeting as the ever-changing times. To resist change is to accept the expected, ‘the path of least resistance’. As Yves Saint Laurent once said: ‘Chanel freed women and I empowered them’. This serves as a reminder that, like creativity, an ‘it’ moment is nothing but an amalgamation of many ‘it’ moments preceding it. Beautiful blends, bends and breaks, made to elevate not tarnish.
Beautiful blends, bends and breaks, made to elevate not tarnish
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FASHION + BEAUTY
CORTEX COUTURE DR CATARINA CARRÃO
Fashion is inextricably linked with beauty and can be appreciated for the aesthetic pleasure it gives us. Recent research proposes that the individual experience of beauty is a specialised function of our brains. Our neural responses to beauty and aesthetics govern our fashion choices and the choices we make govern our mood and sense of ourselves. Does this mean that we are what we wear?
Vogue editor-in-chief and fashion icon, Anna Wintour, helped to promote costume design to ‘museum quality art’ (Berges, 2017). The opening of the Anna Wintour Costume Center in 2014, which helped to integrate costume design as part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, marked one of the moments fashion was acknowledged as a fine art. For many, fashion is a visual and visceral art form, with the power to stimulate our brains with aesthetic impact. This aesthetic experience of fashion is the sensation that a person gains through the visual or tactile experience of wearing or seeing fashion designs (Wang, 2019). In 1757, Edmund Burke already tried to define this ‘feeling’ of aesthetics. He wrote that ‘beauty is some quality in bodies acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses’ (Burke, 1757). This is an extraordinary precursor to modern science: an eighteenth-century suggestion that our experience of beauty could be considered as a specialised function of
our brains. Only recently did scientific data show that this theory could actually be true when a new brain-based theory of aesthetics was formulated (Ishizu and Zeki, 2011). The medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC-A1) might be described as our brain beauty centre. Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki have outlined an experiment where subjects would evaluate pictures of paintings or musical pieces as (i) beautiful, (ii) indifferent and (iii) ugly (Ishizu and Zeki, 2011). By scanning the subjects’ brains using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), they showed that only one specific area of the brain was active during the experience of aesthetics: the medial Orbito-Frontal Cortex (subdivision A1, mOFC-A1)). This large stretch of our brain’s cortex is divided in several architectonic areas that are heavily interconnected, but receive very few direct sensory inputs. It has very strong connections with the basal ganglia, which is the area of our brains that mediates emotion and helps us decide which of different
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possible actions to perform at any given time (Bechara, Damasio, and Damasio, 2000). Our movements can then be performed in a smooth way (Lanciego, Luquin, and Obeso, 2012), like opening our mouths in awe when viewing a beautiful pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes (while considering whether our purses can afford such an acquisition). It is this area of the brain, the mOFC-A1, which is thought to represent emotion and reward in decision-making when experiencing beautiful things (Rushworth et al., 2011). The intensity of sensing beauty experienced by the viewer is
actually proportional to the neuronal activity in this specific area of our brains (Ishizu and Zeki, 2011). Physiological factors such as heart rate, skin electricity, blood pressure, and endocrine changes can provide an effective index of emotional response, but the processing of emotions mainly involves the function of the brain. Whether we have a feeling of comfort or discomfort is up to our brain. Liu and Wang decided to study how clothing pressure exerted by wearing a girdle activates different electroencephalography (EEG) brain waves (Liu and Wang, 2019).
The evaluation of clothing pressure comfort is actually a key technique in the underwear industry, for example. Their study shows how excessive clothing pressure stimulates parts of the parietal and occipital regions of the brain, giving a physiological meaning to the ‘feeling’ of discomfort that many of us feel when our clothes or shoes are too tight. Brain waves were also studied to understand the feelings associated with different personal clothing styles (e.g. sports, avant-garde, casual, elegant, light). By recording the EEG electrical activity of
Excessive clothing pressure stimulates parts of the parietal and occipital regions of the brain
B rain fashion © C atarina C arrão
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Scent chemicals have the power to evoke emotion
the brain, the researcher could understand which clothing styles could be associated with sentiments, such as feeling depressed, nervous, excited, or relaxed. Interestingly, the avantgarde style was coupled with the experience of sadness, while the elegant style was strongly associated with happy feelings (Wang, 2019). One of the main drivers for fashion designers and retailers is to stimulate feelings of content and delight in the consumer. Brands integrate multi-sensory experiences within their physical stores (specifically sound, smell, sight, touch, and taste) to provide an integrated experience for the customer (Alexander and Nobbs, 2016). For example, Chanel’s London flagship store sprays Gabrielle Chanel’s classic No. 5 perfume to enhance the customer olfactory sensory experience. Chanel is one of a number of successful brands that have used multi-sensory stimuli to intensify their customers’ experiences, with even hand-stitched pearls in its curtains as a means of
authenticating the brand (Kim and Sullivan, 2019). Jenny Tillotson, a designer who created a collection supported by chemosensory research, has pushed this sensorial experience to the limit. Research establishes that olfactory substances can increase an individual’s well-being through changes in electrical brain activity in the limbic system, showing how scent chemicals have the power to evoke emotion (Tillotson, 2008). By adding aroma to conceptual garments the designer intended to lead a new wave of ‘emotional fashion’, aiming to manipulate moods and exert positive psychological benefits on the user, with the objective of treating depression and anxiety in the wearer. All of these external stimuli come together in our brain, where neuronal activity is transmitted by neuromodulators, such as brain hormones (e.g. testosterone, cortisol, and oxytocin), and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that allow our brain cells to communicate with each other. The behaviours we have as consumers change when these neuromodulators are altered (Harrell, 2019). Researchers found that, for example, dosing shoppers with testosterone increased their preference for luxury brands which led them to hypothesise that luxury goods represent social markers, and that testosterone makes people more sensitive to fashion status (Nave et al., 2018). People buy luxury goods such as Burberry trenchcoats or Chanel handbags to reflect the inherent value of a high-quality product,
and to increase an individual’s status within the social hierarchy (Wu et al., 2017). As Gotshalk said in 1935, ‘beauty is a value’ (Gotshalk, 1935). Beauty evokes desire, and whatever is desired has value; as such, this implies that there must be an intimate connection in brain processing that is linked to value, desire and beauty (Ishizu and Zeki, 2011). In aesthetic product presentations for potential consumers, there was significantly stronger brain activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (responsible for decision-making), the nucleus accumbens (associated with reward) and the cingulate cortex (which makes the link between motivation outcome and behaviour) (Cheung et al., 2019). So, fashion products with aesthetic appeal significantly induce and increase the engaging time of the consumer as they weigh up whether or not to buy a product (Reimann et al., 2010) and whether the monetary value does indeed match the aesthetic value. Fashion knocks on our inner desires for status and aesthetics. By designing garments and beauty products that appeal to our emotional, seemingly unconscious, responses, fashion seeks to create a feeling, a memory association in our brain. A process that appears to bypass our rational decision-making functions is actually what defines us. Our brains might control our purchases, but the clothes we wear define our mood and ourselves. Perhaps we might indeed, in the end, be what we wear.
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‘He took the preliminary precaution of having his wife watched by a private detective.’ Vertigo
So he shadows a quarry, her eyes on the prize, parks at a discreet five metres, palms his Homburg at the entrance, the graveyard otherwise empty – pulls away after waiting for the ignition to fire. Though each injured soul thinks it theirs alone to diagnose another’s injury, it is as she seems to slip her bonds she slips into her role more deeply.
KNOWING ME KNOWING ME (2020). DIGITAL SCAN FROM FMRI
EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE TECHNICAL LOOK
EVOLVING THE CREATIVE The human brain has developed to perform a number of higher order functions. Cultural progression necessitates increasingly complex neural structures and processes and one indication of heightened neural capacity is creative insight. So how might evolution and genetics contribute? This article provides a brief outline of the creative brain from an evolutionary perspective.
What is the Neuroscience of Creativity? One basic form, creativity is defined as the ability to produce work (either physical or mental) that is novel and unexpected. Creative thinking is inherently a conscious process, supported heavily by subconscious neural activity (Dietrich, 2004b; McElreath, 2018). The prefrontal cortex is particularly important for integrating the information exchange between cortical and subcortical regions and facilitating creative thought (de Souza et al., 2014). Indeed, non-invasive brain imaging techniques, especially functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have been instrumental for studying the neural substrates of creativity in human subjects (Dietrich, 2004b). Our understanding of creativity in the human brain is further informed by studies
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of the fundamental molecular and genetic pathways associated with creative thought processes (Carson, 2011; Enard, 2016; Kuszewski, 2001; Pollen et al., 2019). Additionally, when considering specific forms of creative thinking associated with the development of human culture, such as music, visual arts, architecture, performing and literary arts, an evolutionary perspective on creativity and the human brain becomes necessary.
An Evolutionary Perspective Over the course of evolution, the human brain has developed to perform a number of higher-order functions, each of which requires a unique coordination of neural processing (McElreath, 2018). Some of these functions allow for adaptations to
the environment, such as the use of complex tools, ability for long-term strategic planning and navigating complex societal structures and cooperation. However, the development of culture necessitated the further evolution of creative thought processes and neural pathways. This evolution was likely driven by adaptations to complex cultural and societal environments, as well as epiphenomena of higher cognitive abilities that originally developed to tackle a distinct problem but came to be utilised for a different, apparently less practical purpose. However, as with the use of complex tools, the emergence of culture and eventually art is directly linked to an increase in the size and complexity of the brain during primate evolution (Pollen et al., 2019). The cerebral cortex, the folded structure covering the surface of the brain, has undergone the most dramatic expansion and transformation during the evolution of Homo sapiens (Enard, 2016). As Defelipe explains, although the human brain is not the largest of the mammalian brains, the brain to body mass ratio of the human (termed ‘encephalisation quotient’, or EQ) is the largest among mammals (Defelipe, 2011). EQ is thought to increase during the evolution of primate ancestors of the modern-day humans. Based on studies of fossil specimens, Australopithecus afarensis, the probable immediate predecessors of the genus Homo, had EQ of around 2.5, while EQ of Homo neanderthalensis is estimated to be around 7.5. Modern humans have EQ between 7.4 and 7.8. In addition to sheer size of brain and cerebral cortex, the complexity of individual brain cells in the human brain has evolved dramatically to support its high information processing demands. Mammalian neurons have adopted a mechanism to regulate and optimise synaptic transmission more tightly by evolving dendritic spines, tiny mushroom-like structures on the receiving branches of neurons. The number of these dendritic spines per one neuron in the human prefrontal cortex is almost two times more than that in the macaque prefrontal cortex and four times that in the mouse (Defelipe, 2011). Moreover,
human dendritic spines are larger and more complex than those of other mammals: the volume of a dendritic spine in the human cortex is twice that of a mouse’s dendritic spine. In addition, human cortical neurons tend to have larger and more complex dendritic trees than those of other species. The increase in the size of the brain and especially the cerebral cortex, together with an increase in the density and complexity of dendritic spines, have probably significantly contributed to a higher capacity of the human brain for information processing, which led to emergence of complex behaviours, including creative insight.
The Hardware and Software Behind The Scenes As mentioned above, creative thinking is a process that requires a coordinated effort across brain regions, both cortical and subcortical (Dietrich, 2004b). However, specific regions of the brain are particularly important for coordinating creative thought processes. The previously mentioned prefrontal cortex (PFC) is a highly interconnected set of brain regions central to a number of higher-order cognitive abilities, creativity included. For example, the ability for temporal planning and task-directed behaviour engage broad regions of the PFC and are important for creative processes that involve highly focused and sustained activity, such as carving a sculpture or creating a painting (Dietrich & Kanso, 2010). Additionally, regions such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) directly communicate with subcortical structures involved in emotional and social behavior, such as the amygdala. Damage to the VMPFC causes inappropriate social behavior, sudden changes in personality, as well as instability in emotional responses and irritability (Schneider & Koenigs, 2017). Furthermore, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) communicates with other cortical regions involved in processing and integration of sensory information. The most discernible behavioural defect resulting from
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lesions of the DLPFC is the loss of cognitive flexibility. For instance, patients with lesions in the DLPFC fail to adapt to new rules of a game in a cognitive test called the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task (WCST), in which cards are sorted by one of three characteristics: colour, number, or shape (Gläscher et al., 2019). Creative thinking is heavily dependent on the ability to think outside the box and observe new patterns in old environments and objectss. Therefore, the involvement of the DLPFC in cognitive flexibility suggests its important role in creativity. In addition, the DLPFC is involved in two other neural processes necessary for integrating available information to create new concepts: working memory and attention. Working memory is the ability to process information online. Since a lot of creative thinking in music, visual arts, and other forms of creative self-expression involve
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that eureka moment, when experience and sensory perception come together to allow for emergence of a new idea, the working memory is likely highly relevant to creativity. The sustained attention is the ability to focus on a mental task or an object for an extended period of time without a drop in concentration. Such ability often allows for observing fine details and patterns, which is extremely important in virtually all forms of art. Interestingly, the DLPFC of the left and right brain hemispheres are associated with different neural and cognitive processes. In particular, the working memory is believed to be a function of the left DLPFC, whereas the sustained attention is thought to be carried out by the right hemisphere DLPFC. Overall, research points to the prefrontal cortex and its specific subregions as playing crucial roles in creative thinking (Defelipe, 2011; de Souza et al., 2014; Dietrich, 2004b).
The Development of the Creative Mind The development of the brain is extended significantly in humans compared to other mammals and spans nine months of prenatal development and years or even decades of postnatal development. Importantly, a number of neurodevelopmental processes, such as the continued formation of synapses between neurons in the cerebral cortex, are still taking place during childhood and adolescence (Budday et al., 2015; Defelipe, 2011; Johnson, 2001). As a result, many higher-order cognitive abilities, including those that underlie creative thought, continue to develop throughout life. More specifically, creativity is believed to depend on two types of cognitive processes: divergent thinking (insight, fast implicit associative thinking) and convergent
J ames . mcd . nz S ource : commons . wikimedia . org licensed under CC BY 2.5 by
thinking (deliberate and logical processing of information to create novel solutions). Both types of thinking are at some level dependent on cognitive persistence and cognitive flexibility. Cognitive persistence involves a focused and systematic effort, in-depth exploration of a limited number of cognitive categories and narrow focus (Teubner-Rhodes et al., 2017). In contrast, cognitive flexibility employs a broad focus on multiple diverse cognitive categories and flexible switching between these categories (Dietrich, 2004a; Kleibeuker, De Dreu, et al., 2013). When individuals from different age groups (early adolescence, middle adolescence, and young adulthood) were subjected to standardised tests aimed to measure the degree of cognitive flexibility and creative insight, cognitive flexibility seemed to peak
around middle adolescence, whereas the ability for insight continued to rise until young adulthood (Kleibeuker, De Dreu, et al., 2013). These results suggest that brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, which supports numerous cognitive processes underlying creative thinking, continue to develop throughout adolescence . Interestingly, adolescents perform better in tasks that call for exploration and shifting between representations, and show strong activation within the PFC during such tasks, suggesting that adolescence is a period of increased PFC developmental plasticity (Kleibeuker, De Dreu, et al., 2013; Kleibeuker, Koolschijn, et al., 2013).
The Genetics of Creative Ability
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P atrick J. L ynch , medical illustrator , C. C arl J affe , MD, cardiologis S ource : commons . wikimedia . org licensed under CC BY 2.5
Certain aspects of creative thinking have been linked to specific chemical neurotransmitters that the brain uses to modulate neural activity (Liu et al., 2018). Specifically, the dopamine system of the brain has been implicated in modulating the activity of the prefrontal cortex (Ott & Nieder, 2019). High levels of dopamine in the PFC allow one to prioritise attention to specific aspects of the environment, making experiences more personally relevant. Furthermore, genetic variations linked to the dopamine system have been shown to correlate with some aspects of creativity. For instance, the presence of an A1 allele variant of gene DRD2 (dopamine receptor D2) in the genome of university students correlated with both verbal creativity and creativity in general (Takeuchi et al., 2015; Thompson et al.,
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Genetic variations have been shown to correlate with some aspects of creativity
1997). Additionally, a gene called COMT codes for an enzyme that degrades dopamine and is thus critical for modulating dopamine levels in the brain (Simpson et al., 2014). Specific variants of COMT have been linked to higher IQ, working memory, and cognitive flexibility (Dickinson & Elvevåg, 2009). Another neurotransmitter, serotonin (5-HT), has been widely linked with creative abilities. Genetic variants in serotonin system genes, such as 5-HTR2A and 5HTT, have been linked to personality traits such as the propensity to experience altered states of consciousness, synesthesia (ability to experience several senses simultaneously) and creative dance performance (Bachner-Melman et al., 2005; Gu et al., 2018; Luddington et al., 2009). Importantly, overactivation of the dopamine and serotonin systems, possibly in combination of deficient cognitive control exerted by the PFC, can lead to a number of psychopathological conditions, including schizophrenia and mood disorders (Carson, 2011). This shared vulnerability between psychosis and creativity might explain why so many highly creative historical figures are associated with psychopathological conditions.
Brain Mechanisms of Creativity Comprehending and performing music are complex tasks that require the coordination of multiple brain networks. When combined with creative ability, this cross-communication of neural networks allows one to create new musical works. By collecting neuroimaging data from musicians during comprehension or performance of music, several studies have revealed an ensemble of brain regions that are involved in musical cognition (Parsons, 2001). One PET study demonstrated that musical performance such as piano playing requires
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coordination of the secondary auditory cortex and left cerebellum. As Parsons explains, it is believed that the secondary auditory cortex is involved in higher-order representation of musical meaning. Interestingly, activation of the left cerebellum was observed even without active performance of music, suggesting that the role of the cerebellum in musical performance goes beyond motor control. Another PET imaging study performed on expert musicians aimed to identify brain areas that were responsible for comprehending certain components of music: harmony, melody and rhythm (Parsons, 2001). The cerebellum was activated bilaterally in all three tasks, and was one of the dominant regions of activation during the rhythm task. Additionally, these three different tasks evoked responses in three distinct fronto-temporal networks. These results highlight the notion that different components of musical performance depend on unique pathways of cortical and subcortical communication. Given the reliance of music performance on a number of high-level brain functions, the underlying brain circuits have potentially emerged during the evolutionary expansion of the human brain. Interestingly, dramatic performance seems to rely on a different set of neural mechanisms compared to those which mediate music and visual art. In one study, actors were asked questions either about themselves or about the [Romeo and Juliet] character they trained to perform as (Brown et al., 2019). Answering questions about one’s self (first person) led to consistent activation across a range of cortical regions, including the dorsomedial and ventromedial subregions of the PFC. Interestingly, when subjects were asked to answer questions from the perspective of a character, neither of these PFC subregions was activated. In light of these findings, Brown et al. suggests that artistic
Pictorial art often utilises symbols that are appealing to human perception
performance requires the suppression of certain neural processes in order to subdue expression of the self and instead emulate the behaviour of another. Such a feat involves executive control (also mediated by the PFC) and is expected to be a paramount component of creative dramatic performance. Ultimately, despite the differences in the neural mechanisms underlying different artistic mediums, these mechanisms are in a broad sense human-specific features of consciousness, linking them to the evolution of the human brain and concomitant development of culture (Frewen et al., 2020). For visual arts, including paintings and architecture, the primary goal is to evoke aesthetic sensation through visually appealing imagery (Seeley, 2006). In doing so, pictorial art often utilises symbols that are appealing to human perception, with many of these symbols having originated from our primate ancestors over the course of human evolution. Therefore, the human brain has itself evolved to recognise and react to specific environments, patterns, and visual symbolism. An artist’s ability to manipulate these symbols together with the technical capability to create images that are visually appealing (for instance, by adhering to mathematical rules such as symmetry and proportion) underlies the realisation of new works of visual art. Data from neuroimaging studies, as well as reports of artists who had damage in specific areas of the brain suggest that the ability to create visual art involves a broad set of brain networks. For instance, the ability to depict spatial relations between objects accurately is impaired if the right parietal lobe is damaged (Amorapanth et al., 2010). Motor activity necessary for the production of paintings or other works of visual art involves the interplay between diverse regions including the
motor cortex, cerebellum, visual cortex, and fronto-parietal control network. Other components of visual art are driven more by limbic areas, such as the amygdala (emotional epicentre) and hypothalamus (pleasure centre). As with music and performance art, we see the importance of highly specific coordination between sensorimotor and limbic systems for the creation of novel visual art.
Conclusions Creative ability and creativity in visual art, music, and artistic performance do not appear to represent a singular cognitive domain but rather a highly complex and diverse set of cognitive abilities. These abilities involve neural processes that often rely on critical hubs of higher-order neural processing, such as the PFC. However, each specific form of art also requires additional coordinated efforts across unique brain regions and networks. These circuits appear to have emerged as a by-product or direct consequence of human evolutionary adaptation to both the natural and cultural environment. The neuroscience of creativity is an exciting interdisciplinary area of research that is still in its infancy. Without a doubt, future research at the intersection of basic neuroscience, neuroimaging, psychology, and anthropology will produce exciting new insights on how the brain facilitates complex creative processes.
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BILL. PAINTED STONEWARE AND STEEL, 18X4X5IN
WILLIAM & GEORGE. PAINTED STONEWARE AND WOOD, 10X18X12IN
SCREEN ARTS INTERVIEW
COMEDY CIRCUITS SOPHIE SCOTT + ORI AMIR
Neuroscience is deepening our understanding of humour by shedding light on the evolutionary function of laughter and brain activity when we make jokes. But could our capacity for humour ever be replicated by AI?
As anyone who’s sat through a misfiring best-man’s speech can testify, comedy is a ticklish business. Humour may be one of the great constants of human behaviour, but questions about what drives it abound. What is its evolutionary function, exactly? Why can watching a man slip on an icy pavement make us freeze with horror in one context, but guffaw in another? Why is it easier to laugh when we’re in company than when we’re on our own? One of the funniest things about humour, perhaps, is that, the more you spend time cogitating it, the less and less amusing – and the deeper and more fascinating – the topic becomes. Strangely, perhaps, neuroscientists haven’t exactly fallen over each other in the quest for answers. Whereas the literature on ‘affective’ emotions such as disgust and pleasure is plentiful, papers focusing on humour are harder to come by, and there are far fewer researchers in the field. It wasn’t until 2000 that the American psychologist
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Robert Provine persuaded many colleagues to attend to what he called this branch of ‘sidewalk neuroscience’ – that is, work that could engage and intrigue non-specialists – in his pioneering book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (Provine, 2001). Even now, twenty years on, humour is a subject too few neuroscientists take, well, seriously. ‘It is surprising that it’s less researched than it should be,’ agrees Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, who has spent her career investigating the neurobiology of speech, with a particular focus on laughter. ‘It’s often regarded as trivial – not the business of science, somehow. But then people say the same about comedy itself – that it’s not as worth studying as tragedy: funny films never win Oscars, do they?’ Nonetheless, the fact that neuroscientists have been slow on the uptake remains puzzling. Humour has a lot to offer researchers: even if the things that provoke it are wildly different, it is universal
S ophie S cot t
across cultures and time, giving the subject broad applicability. It’s also easy to detect both visually and aurally (we smile and laugh). And, most appealing of all, it appears to be binary – we either find something funny, or we don’t. ‘Unlike a lot of behaviours, we actually have a relatively objective measure,’ argues Ori Amir, a neuroscientist at Pomona College in California, who, like Scott, focuses on humour. ‘People agree far more that something is funny rather than when, say, a piece of art is beautiful. It’s a great subject if you’re interested in creativity.’ There is a degree of consensus, too, on how the brain handles humour. While experts disagree on the details, the psychologist Brian King outlines the process in his book The Laughing Cure (King, 2016).Let’s say I’m telling you a classic question-and-answer joke: how many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb? You reply, of course, that you don’t know. The moment I deliver the punchline (‘but does the lightbulb want to change?’), your prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the section of your brain that handles complex cognitive behaviour – along with areas in the temporal cortex, leaps into action to analyse what I’ve just said. Because it’s a joke involving language – specifically a pun on the word ‘change’ – your dominant brain hemisphere (the left side for the majority of us
O ri A mir
who are right-handed) is called in to help process the information, while the other hemisphere helps assess its emotional and social intent, specifically that I’m intending to be funny. In King’s phrase, ‘the right hemisphere “gets” the joke’. As the joke moves at lightning speed through your neural networks, other areas of your brain get involved. Your parietal lobe, which helps with visualisation, might become stimulated (maybe you’re picturing Sigmund Freud struggling to reach a ceiling fitting). The subcortical areas constituting your limbic system encourage you to feel joy. Finally – assuming my gag amused you enough – the regions of your brain that control physical movement induce you to smile or even laugh. Badoom-tish. ‘Many different areas of the brain are involved,’ says Amir. ‘When you look at the brain using functional MRI (fMRI), you see activity in the temporal poles, the medial prefrontal cortex and other parts too; you see the brain working to bring all these different elements together.’ ‘But it’s after this point that things get truly interesting,’ he adds. While most neuroscientists have focused on ‘passive humour appreciation’ – how the brain processes what might be described as ‘incoming’ humour – Amir has investigated how we actually generate jokes. His most famous experiment to date, conducted
Amir has investigated how we actually generate jokes
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Laughter has a strong evolutionary basis with his colleague Irving Biederman, focused on a cohort of 40 people, made up of thirteen professional comedians, nine amateurs and eighteen control subjects (Amir & Biederman, 2016). After lying down in an MRI scanner, each person was shown a New Yorker cartoon and given fifteen seconds to think of two captions: one straight, the other as amusing as possible. These captions were then recorded and rated for funniness by an independent group of 81 undergraduates. Several enticing insights emerged. First, the stronger the activity in the temporal lobe (which is involved in vision, memory, sensory input, language, emotion and comprehension), the greater the comedic experience. Even more intriguingly, the ventral striatum – a major ‘reward’ region – showed activity even before a joke was generated, hinting that either the brain ‘knows’ if a joke will be funny (hence producing a reward), or possibly that the brain is priming itself to come up with funny ideas. Amir and Biedermann also demonstrated that professional comedians use their dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (dlPFC) less than amateurs do when generating material, instead relying on their medial prefrontal cortices (mPFC). Given that the dlPFC is associated with cognitive control, and the mPFC with self-expression, this indicates that pros are doing what improv comedy coaches always advise: conquering the inner critic and going with the flow, rather than trying to ‘force the funny’. ‘That piece of research was satisfying,’ Amir says. ‘The advice to get out of your head is supported by evidence: you really do need to reduce the activity of your control centres.’ As well as researching comedy, Amir also performs as a standup. When I ask if these insights have affected his own performances, he laughs.
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‘I always say that doing comedy has informed my science much more than doing science has informed my comedy.’ Sophie Scott is, it turns out, another neuroscientist turned comedian; she first tried her hand at live performance a decade ago and still appears on occasion at UCL’s own Bright Club (billed as ‘the thinking person’s comedy night’). But her own research into humour reaches back to when she was doing postdoctoral work into non-verbal expressions of strong emotions in the 1990s. ‘I never set out to study laughter,’ she says. ‘But then as soon as you start looking at it, you realise that it’s everywhere. It’s connected to so many different things.’ While Amir has delved inside the brain, trying to unravel how it processes and assembles humour, Scott has primarily looked outwards – to how humans express their appreciation of it. She has investigated why we sometimes break out into fits of uncontrollable giggles, explored the differences between ‘authentic’ and fake laughs, demonstrated that laughing can indeed be contagious in groups, and even tested the effectiveness of taped ‘canned’ laughter, used in TV sitcoms since time immemorial. Laughter has a strong evolutionary basis, Scott argues: as well as being inherently a social act (other research suggests we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we’re with someone else rather than alone), it helps humans navigate our relationships with others (Provine, 2001). ‘At base, it’s an invitation to play,’ she says. ‘Laughter says, “I’m not going to hurt you, or mate with you, or do anything else. I want to connect with you.”’ Scott’s research also suggests something surprising: that there are at least two kinds of laughter, which her co-authored 2017 paper on the subject split into ‘spontaneous and volitional’ (Lavan et al., 2017). The spontaneous kind (also exhibited by apes and rats) is activated by being tickled, and seems more primal. If we receive that stimulus, in other words, we can’t help ourselves laughing, even if we don’t really want to. The volitional kind, however, suggests a social dimension – we’re laughing to show we’re relaxed, we’re having a good time, we’re joining in, we get the joke. One estimate suggests humans laugh in conversation around seven times every ten minutes, approximately once every minute and a half. It is
clearly a crucial part of sociability, as it happens to be with chimpanzees, too. ‘That kind of laughter is about regulating emotion,’ argues Scott. ‘And your brain really cares about the difference. You can see it very clearly in brain imaging.’ One of Scott and her colleagues’ most striking recent pieces of research, published in Current Biology last year, shows that groan-worthy, so-called dad jokes (‘What do you call a man with a spade on his head? Dug.’) are perceived by audiences to be funnier if researchers add a pre-recorded laughter track (Cai et al., 2019). This suggests that there’s something about hearing other people laugh that increases our own sense of hilarity, as anyone who’s crammed into a small, soldout stand-up gig knows (or, conversely, anyone who’s watched a comedian struggle to raise a three-quarters-empty room). ‘Laughter is almost more like an animal call than it is speech,’ says Scott, pointing out that her own experience doing standup supports this. ‘One of the things I realised on stage is how you really need to give the audience space to laugh; it’s as much about orchestrating that as it is about telling jokes.’ Gags about nerdy neuroscientists aside (think of the character that real-life neurobiologist Mayim Bialik plays in American sitcom The Big Bang Theory), there is a great deal researchers still don’t know about humour, and would like to. On a practical basis, accurately measuring the brain activity of someone who’s laughing, still more delivering jokes, is tough – head and mouth movements make getting clean fMRI data near-impossible, and EEG data can also be easily contaminated with noise. Then, of course, it is equally difficult to get someone to be funny on cue while trapped in an intimidating, noisy scanner: conditions that make even the most bearpit-like comedy club seem encouraging. Other queries are more subtle. Given Scott’s research into different forms of laughter, is humour less ‘binary’ – either we find something funny, or we don’t – than we suppose? How is laughter triggered across different global cultures or social groups, which may laugh at radically different things, and at different times? What are the evolutionary links with other species? Do humans experience humour differently as we get older?
You really need to give the audience space to laugh ‘Things are changing slowly, but there’s a huge amount of work to do,’ says Scott. Or, depending on how you look at it, there are plentiful opportunities in the field. Scott would like to delve deeper into involuntary laughter, and explore its neural basis. She’d also like to explore the links between that and voluntary laughter – how laughing intentionally can transmute into laughing helplessly, to the point where we actually lose control of our motor inhibition. ‘It’s a risky form of behaviour, if you think about it,’ she says. ‘You’re completely defenceless.’ Amir, by contrast, is searching for something that has long been of interest to cognition researchers: whether or not humour can be created by computers. Commercial confidentiality prevents him from saying too much, but he is currently doing early research into using artificial intelligence to explore how machines can generate jokes. ‘That would be the killer app,’ he says, pointing out that it could be of use to anyone from ad agencies to governments crafting public announcements and wanting to make them more approachable. ‘You could imagine something like Google Translate,’ he adds. ‘You put in a serious statement and it comes out with something funny.’ Is anything like that in the pipeline? ‘We are working on intermediate steps,’ he says. One thing is undeniable. However we comprehend humour, or frame it – both Scott and Amir agree that researchers are still only just starting to unravel its many secrets – it is impossible to imagine life without laughter, even in the midst of a pandemic. ‘It’s one of the most important social and survival skills we have,’ says Scott.
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SCREEN ARTS INTERVIEW
SCREEN SPARKS MAKENNA GUYLER
For this print issue, we commissioned a spoken word short film, which explores the eureka moment. Here, Ella K Clarke, writer and director of the Eureka short, shares with us the flashes of inspiration which she experienced while creating this piece and talks to its star, actress Makenna Guyler
My starting point for Eureka was the inimitable ‘breakthrough’ experience, seen from the point of view of the visionary or inventor, who exhausts all possibilities in the search and capture of this elusive moment of enlightenment. My own thoughts were drawn to the source of that moment, as a personification of the spark, and from there sprang this piece depicting transformation, discovery and shifts in identity through ‘thought alchemy’. In our conversation, Makenna and I gravitated towards a redemptive narrative, whereby our personal struggles to find our place in professional endeavours could be gratified and, in some way, resolved. This then led us to question our need for control and satisfaction in the work we create. We reflected on the narratives of various inventors and their striving for this sense of success through a never-before-encountered idea that would shape life as we know it. We also considered how trauma enables us to adapt and shape
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IN CONVERSATION WITH ELLA K CLARKE
new thought patterns and new levels of resilience. This ‘thought alchemy’ presented itself in a spoken word piece which best illustrated the words with vocal vigour, performative rhyming and rhythm to create an almost meditative state of engagement and convulsion within the performer. The filming of the piece needed to translate the mutational themes of the poem and so the beautifully Brutalist architecture of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, at London’s Barbican Centre, provided a wonderful canvas on which to paint the story. EKC: What about Eureka inspired you (forgive the pun) and what in Eureka can you relate to? MG: Trying to describe that moment… where everything clicks into place and there’s complete clarity is something, I haven’t tried to do before. It was the beginning of some very interesting conversations. In the early stages I found it hard to articulate how they come about: they’re completely
piece we’re exploring all that’s beneath the surface.
The development was messy, non-linear and more personal than I’d intended elusive at times – it’s like catching cloud and something about that excites me. I can completely relate to the relentless churning that the pacing of Ella’s writing gives us; sometimes it feels like a real uphill battle, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that before the stillness and quiet that follows. It’s like that iceberg description of success – in this
EKC: What was the first instance you can remember when you experienced the eureka moment? MG: I remember being in my first dance show at the ripe old age of five. I walked out and something inside clicked: all the rehearsal, the practice, the work had accumulated in this moment and it just felt like a real belonging. This was my first eureka and calling into the creative world and since then I haven’t left it! EKC: What about the development process of this piece challenged you? MG: It was messy, non-linear and more personal than I’d intended – much like the pursuit of eureka moments in life! I originally wanted to give the relief angle, the success and the clarity of the lightbulb moments in a bid to be the ‘keep going’ voice to fellow creatives, but as the piece developed I realised we had to let go of that to a degree to acknowledge
M akenna G uyler at T he B arbican C entre , 2019 © M onika C iunkaite
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M akenna G uyler at T he B arbican C entre , 2019 © M onika C iunkaite
the difficulty in each journey, and to honour that. This in turn made the writing more relatable, like a true reflection of the ups and downs, which then makes the aha moment that much sweeter. EKC: What was the most inspiring piece of art you saw this year? MG: I’m a fan of truth and simplicity – I’m a complete overthinker and sometimes I just need something that cuts through all of that to give me a much needed reminder that it’s okay to just be. Notes to strangers (Andy Leek,) seems to have popped up more and more in my life this year, and are always in the most unexpected places – they’re simple statements or questions that just seem to always yank me back into the present and give me a little joy in my day. This is what I like art to be, a human connection and a level of understanding of this existence. You can see his works in random side streets, on post boxes, or easier to track down on Instagram.
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EKC: Where can we find more of your work? MG: Feature film Blood Bags has just had its US release and will be following into other territories soon. The Barge People has a 2020 release, as do After Dark, Crawl To Me Darling and Hobbes House. All releases will be shared on my Instagram @makennaguyler – it’s going to be a big year!
I’m a fan of truth and simplicity
POEM BY ELLA K CLARKE ID me please – I’m breaking through the gates, Through burrows and lakes, my synapse breaks, shaking like tremors under-ground, waves of the Mexican kind. I find, this network of under earth, under skin, under kin, layers that formulate my thought befriending my shell in this house of thin, translucent sparks… In the dark, I’m swimming, in the frantically stark, sheets of ice that complete my totality. Frankly, losing my grip, while I slip deep into this field of lightning. My emergence comes freely but not into the palms of the hand who grasps my throat. Afloat, sailing into the wind, the current, my dorsal fin, navigating, the compass dial twitching, thrown backward onto the knife that carves me open. Splirting and splitting my sides in fragments, of glass, this farce of a thousand particles. Salt rusting, sugar frosting, frothing at my mouth. Silver or platinum, the jumpstart cables. I’m flailing, splaying my organs in a vortex of knots. No sinew left behind. I’m blind. Wood turns cold, stone burns to ashes, my fire snuffs out in a bowl of molasses. Stuck still, still spinning, a head rush, gold flush, Dopamine stream into the Caudate Nucleus. The falling apple prompts Newton to formulate his laws, a light-bulb in herding his gravity’s cause. The Greek Archimedes, his maths his best asset, finds water displacement in an oversized facet, of his lord’s jewels, fools. Neither was I the pip that sprouted the fruit, nor the blacksmith who moulded that kings loot… I was the garter he slipped that hard-earned note into that night, and might have been the woman he bedded that night out of spite, when he thought all was lost in that kaleidoscope of starlight. I was not the fore-thought, but the rain that shortly followed. Breathing as if for the first time, I could stay here indefinitely. Freefalling, thawing, I’m spawning from the once infertile mud, the oxygen, feeding this unholy flood. Seeing my face, it’s bareness, it’s case – it’s unutterable, meaningless collection of space, draws something from the ether. Just something. Rural, un-pathed, Neural, un-scaved. Acumbens with a capital ‘A’, my name was never important anyway. No longer a singularity in this community of links, a chain, the Salience thinks, a glimpse of my own reflection.
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GENETIC TRACES I & II. OIL ON CANVAS, 50X50CM
YOUR BRAIN ON (VIDEO) GAMES DR ANGELICA KAUFMANN
There are many theories about the impacts of virtual reality and video games on our brains and behaviour. How might these activities affect our ability to be creative? This article provides a brief overview of neuroscientific research into these topics.
If you think that augmented reality didn’t exist before the advent of the computer, think again. When Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, visited Crimea in 1787, her retinue is said to have been greeted by cheerful, neatly dressed peasants in prosperous-looking villages. The entire scene was a facade masterminded by the highly creative statesman, Grigory Potemkin, and, as legend has it, afterwards the portable village was packed up and transported downriver overnight so that the performance could be repeated the following day. The term Potemkin village has come to connote stage-managed reality, fleetingly orchestrated to produce a pleasing impression. The history of staged reality can be traced back at least to the pre-modern era with the foundation of Memphis, Egypt’s first capital, which was built by the king Narmer around 3150 BC. More recent examples also exist, such as Greenfield Village,
Michigan, the living history museum built by Henry Ford in the early 1930s, or the master-planned community, Celebration, Florida, constructed by The Walt Disney Company in the 1990s. Where bald reality proves disappointing, a faked environment may be more effective. Humans have long envisaged other realms of existence, from Heavens to Hells. Modern generations do not merely envisage, they can also play games in other realms. Much of how people live today not only is mediated by computers, it also involves entire virtual worlds crafted to pique interests and set creative drives free. It is interesting to note that many animals also display complex play interests. Play-like behaviour is at the core of creativity, and a mark of intelligent behaviour. Play is observed in many diverse phylogenetic groups including mammals, lizards, crustaceans, insects, turtles, frogs, and fish (Graham and Burghardt, 2010;
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Dapporto, Turillazzi, and Palagi, 2006; Mather and Anderson, 1999; Burghardt, 2005). Additionally, animal play can be highly complex and imaginative in non-human primates. Various reports document imaginary play in chimpanzees and bonobos (Jensvold and Fouts, 1993), and gorillas have been observed playing a game quite similar to human tag (Van Leeuwen, Zimmermann, and Ross, 2011; Brown, 1988). Fascinatingly, animals also play computer games. Captive primates and monkeys have learned to play complex computer games designed for experimental purposes. In a series of studies investigating memory performance, chimpanzees were able to interact with a touch screen and complete a memory task. During the task, the chimps were briefly exposed to a sequence of Arabic numerals which they subsequently learned to touch in an ascending order (Kawai and Matsuzawa, 6765). In another example, monkeys were trained to play video games by manipulating joysticks to shoot bullets at a target. In this computer game, named Shooter, monkeys learned to play effectively in single-player (monkey vs. computer) or multiplayer (monkey vs. monkey) sessions (Hosokawa and Watanabe, 2012). From chimpanzees to Russian empresses, what can video games tell scientists about the creative processes going on in the brain and the mind? Video games are perhaps the most popular computerised intervention approach for training different aspects of cognition, including attention, cognitive control, visuospatial abilities, cognitive workload, and reward processing. Empirical studies can generally be divided into three groups based on their methods and findings. The first group of studies suggests that gamers have superior cognitive abilities across a number of sensory, perceptual, and attentional domains (Appelbaum et al., 2013). Specifically, action video game players respond more rapidly to relevant
stimuli (Dye, Green, and Bavelier, 2009), track a greater number of items (Green and Bavelier, 2006), have better spatial (Boot et al., 2008; Green and Bavelier, 2003; Green and Bavelier, 2006, 2007) and temporal abilities (Donohue, Woldorff, and Mitroff, 2010), and are better at task-switching relative to non-players (Boot et al., 2008; Cain, Landau, and Shimamura, 2012). They perform better on working memory tasks and detect changes more efficiently (Boot et al. 2008), but do not necessarily show enhancements in short-term verbal recall (Cain, Landau, and Shimamura, 2012) or visual short-term memory (Wilms, Petersen, and Vangkilde, 2013). A second group of studies reports negative effects of engaging in video games frequently, namely on visuospatial perception, attention, and memory (Boot et al., 2008). On the other hand, a third group of studies comparing video game players with non-players reports no significant differences between the groups with regards to cognitive processing abilities (Castel, Pratt, and Drummond, 2005; Murphy and Spencer, 2009; Irons, Remington, and McLean, 2011). The scientific interest in exploring the link between video games and cognitive training is growing rapidly, thus paving the way for research geared at better understanding the underlying mechanisms and translation to clinical practice (Raz and Lindenberger, 2013). Studies in this field could improve our knowledge of cognition and brain plasticity and be of great help in designing effective cognitive-enhancement interventions (Karbach and Schubert, 2013). It is well known that brain plasticity and its role in brain adaptation across the lifespan are influenced by other changes occurring as a result of environmental factors, personality variables, and genetic and epigenetic factors (Ballesteros et al., 2015). Training with video games has been shown to moderately enhance perceptual and cognitive functions in both younger and older individuals
Play-like behaviour is at the core of creativity, and a mark of intelligent behaviour
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(Lampit, Hallock, and Valenzuela, 2014; Toril, Reales, and Ballesteros, 2014; Ballesteros et al., 2014). For the time being, the study of video games and the brain is a complex combination of techniques, goals and results. On the one hand, there are articles which study how video games may influence the nervous system and cognition (C. Shawn Green and Seitz, 2015). There is evidence that exposure to certain kinds of video games can have an influence on behavioural aspects, and therefore, we should be able to appreciate changes in the neural correlates of these behaviours (Bavelier et al. 2012). On the other hand, video games have been used as a research tool to study the nervous system itself. In this realm of research, it is common to find exposure to video games as the independent variable, especially in most studies that use unmodified commercial video games. However, it is not unusual for studies to employ custom-designed video games, such as the widely used Space Fortress, where in-game variables can be fine-tuned to elicit certain mental processes in consonance with the research hypotheses (Smith, McEvoy, and Gevins, 1999; Anderson et al., 2011; Prakash et al., 2012; Anderson et al., 2016). As computer games have gradually become a prominent part of our daily lives, gaming behaviour has increasingly drawn the attention of the scientific community. Researchers from various disciplines have been studying the very same question: why are games fun and why do we play them? The conclusion that the ‘gaming literature’ reaches can be summarised (albeit with significant simplification) as: we play games because games trigger the very same motivations and offer the same ‘objects of desire’ that we experience and pursue in our daily lives (Palaus et al., 2017). Our sensory perceptions, feelings, emotional states, and consciousness are a product of the activity, interaction, and emergent properties of the complex neuronal networks and connectome of our central nervous system. Similarly, our subjective hedonic experiences of video games are created by a particular network of brain structures called the reward system (Lorenz et al., 2015). Various largescale networks in the brain respond to reward.
Moreover, what registers as rewarding depends on personality traits too. If you are motivated by curiosity and exploration, then point-and-click adventure games may attract you with their huge inventories. If you prefer to experience power and influence over others you might like role-playing as the eternal ruler of a society in Sid Meier’s Civilization. And if this isn’t enough for you, Peter Molyneux developed Black & White, a game where you can literally play God or the Devil if you so choose. However, Tetris might be particularly attractive if you are more interested in seeking order and simplicity. But for hardcore gamers who want to maximise the complexity of the virtual experience, there are the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG). Here, it is possible to be a hero or a villain, collect items, socialise, improve your character and overcome obstacles using pattern recognition and problem-solving – definitely a cognitive ‘playground’ for our intrinsic motivations. The fact that millions of people from different countries and socioeconomic groups across age groups participate in these vast virtual words is a clear indicator that sufficiently complex games can offer something for almost anyone. Games offer us the means to act upon our motivations freely and safely in a medium that is inherently biased for our pleasure (unlike real life), with just the right amount of uncertainty and challenge (to further boost our reward system). Thus, the virtual world can come to represent a ‘better’ life, or at least a life that meets one’s individual desires. Reality has come a long way since 1787. First came the camera, which notoriously never lies but can be made to tell some very selective truths. Then came computers, thanks to which, even the most authentic photograph can be manipulated effortlessly using Photoshop. Now, as consumers truly begin to experience the complex simulations offered by virtual reality, be prepared to question the nature of these new worlds and how they might inspire or manipulate you.
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TRANSIENCE 6 (2013), ETCHING AND AQUATINT, 35 X25CMS
You beckon a conversation open; Which dress do you prefer, mom? I consider color, fit, how to reply, and hesitating, I am too late. Your creature mind paints me predator, never mind, you say diving into your dressing-den. Gossamer threads of growing, twisted braids of need, fray— lasso-noose or ladder—strain our split brains, colossal tunnel, tough body of neural tissue where tender unfolds dialogues of right, left, wrong—unbalanced scales. Blind explosions, excitable mind-swings we think steer our choices: take the highway not city streets, fall for the tall guy in bling and leather, red dress for strutting, chicken not fish for dinner. Decisions parade, masquerade over fear, as once, with spears poised, we pursued food. When a snake crossed our path, we froze, retreated in nanoseconds, before knowing, before words, before the chemistry of yes and no inhabited us. And now you, once yoked as zygote, try to split from me, sloughing daily, hourly, your many outfitted, synaptic selves, searching for a perch, perfect circle, stance or cant, to unmask your current face.
BICAMERAL TEEN AT THE MALL
RETRACING MEMORIES (2020), PHOTOGRAPH
GASTROPHYSICS CHARLES SPENCE IN CONVERSATION WITH KATE TIGHE
What makes someone a ‘super-taster’, and what does that mean? How is our perception of food influenced by external stimuli such as ‘sonic seasoning’? These are just some of the conundrums neurogastronomy aims to investigate.
Charles Spence is a professor of experimental psychology, specialising in food and sensory science. He runs the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at The University of Oxford, which is part of the Experimental Psychology Department, and his work focuses on the ways in which we perceive the multisensory world around us. We sat down with him to talk about the basics of the discipline he calls ‘the new science of eating’ and the ways in which the food industry utilises and traverses the fields of neuroscience and culinary creativity. Kate Tighe: Thank you very much for agreeing to talk with us. Firstly, could you give a simple definition of ‘Neurogastronomy’ Charles Spence: Basically, this means the ‘brain on flavour’ or the idea that by understanding how flavour is processed by the brain we begin to understand how this might help design more desirable and/or healthier foods. Neurogastronomy has
undoubtedly provided some important insights that one couldn’t really get any other way, such as resolving what is going on in the Coke vs Pepsi challenge, and the impact of pricing on things like wine. It is intriguing to see how branding, naming, and pricing have been shown to trigger functions in some of the earliest areas of the brain, both where taste stimuli are first perceived and in the orbitofrontal cortex, where pleasure and reward is represented. KT: Are there any limitations to this term? CS: Certainly. The limitation is that in order to get the nice brain pictures (of the brain on flavour), people very often need to be tested in isolation – lying in a claustrophobic narrow noisy tube with liquidised food squirted into their mouth. This, of course, is nothing like real-world eating and drinking, meaning that the approach lacks ecological validity.
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One of my favourite examples of this that I wrote about in my 2017 book Gastrophysics is the pink ice cream once served by top chef Heston Blumenthal (Spence, 2017). Because it was pink, most of us would expect that it would taste sweet and fruity. In fact, it was a frozen smoked salmon, or crab bisque mousse, so very savoury instead. The gastrophysics research demonstrated that in order for people to enjoy the dish, and for it to taste as the chef intended, it needed to be given the right name or label (e.g. frozen savoury mousse) to avoid diners having a negative response.
C harles S pence © S am F rost
KT: Is there something you prefer? CS: Yes – I prefer ‘Gastrophysics’. This is the idea that far more affects our taste and flavour perception than any of us realise. And that simply asking people: ‘does the colour of the plate, or the shape of the dining table make a difference to the taste?’, or ‘does your beverage of choice taste better in your favourite mug?’ won’t necessarily get to the truth. Rather, we need to study people, but in as ecologically realistic and authentic eating and drinking situations as possible, supported of course by carefully controlled laboratory research. Also key is that our experience of flavour is determined as much by our brain’s expectations and predictions of taste as with the actual taste. Hence, much of gastrophysics is about the science of ‘expectations management’. If you expect that something will taste sweet, good, or especially enjoyable, then that expectation anchors your experience when you actually come to taste the food or drink. If the experience is close to the expectation then we all tend to live in the world of our expectations, whereas if the discrepancy is too great then we may end up with a negatively valenced (meaning we don’t like it) disconfirmation of expectations.
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KT: You say that eating is the most complex of all human activities. Can you explain this a bit more? CS: Well in short, eating engages more senses, and more of the brain, than pretty much any other human activity, according to Prof Gordon Shepherd, author of the book Neurogastronomy (Shepherd, 2013), combining inputs from all over the brain such as sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, pain (the burn of chilli for example), and sound. That all takes place during eating, but there is also a lot of prediction involved too. This means we see food first and our brain immediately starts to predict likely flavour and energy content which uses even more activity before we have even begun to think about putting it in our mouths. This and the ‘expectations management’ we discussed previously. It is worth remembering that our brain has evolved with finding, assessing, and following food, especially energy-dense food being key for our survival. KT: Are these perceptions built into our neurological genetic make-up? CS: Some of them definitely are. For example, we are all born liking sweet and disliking bitter because bitter might be poisonous. However, some of us are genetically predisposed to be supertasters (more sensitive to bitter tastes) while others are genetically predisposed to be non-tasters (less sensitive to tastes, especially bitter compounds). Intriguingly, we also find, for instance, that serving a slice of cake or pizza with the middle pointing towards people is liked less than if the slice of cake or pizza points away. This probably links back to fear of angular things being threatening or dangerous. KT: Your book Gastrophysics centrally explores human ‘quirks’ of how we perceive food. In
writing this, what did you find the most interesting? CS: For me, sonic seasoning has been the most intriguing. This is the idea that we can change the taste of food and drink through music and soundscapes (either off the shelf or specifically composed). This is surprising to most people, because music doesn’t seem to be related to taste, but it changes taste in predictable ways. We have spicy music, sweet, sour, bitter, and even creamy music. For instance, play high-pitched music (think wind chimes or Mike Oldfield Tubular Bells) – that evokes sweetness. By contrast, very low-pitched music is associated with bitterness. For example, in our research with The Fat Duck restaurant, we were able to show that we could bring out the sweetness/bitterness in a burnt cinder toffee by about 5-10% simply by adding the right sonic seasoning. KT: Sounds fascinating. Are our perceptions of food affected by other outside stimuli? CS: Well, for all of us, I think it feels like we just taste the food and drink, and that nothing else really matters. However, what research increasingly shows is how pretty much everything has some influence on taste perception and hedonics. The classic example of this that I introduced in my 2014 book with Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, The Perfect Meal, is what is known as the ‘Provencal Rosé Paradox’, where rosé wine that tastes so perfect during the holidays tastes completely different, and not as good, when we open a bottle back up later in the middle of winter (Spence & Piqueras-Fiszman, 2014). KT: I have actually experienced that myself! Are these nuances of food perception used by chefs? CS: Well, sometimes chefs pick up on some of this stuff intuitively, like knowing that food tastes better with heavy cutlery, for example. But I am now hearing more about chefs thinking more carefully about colour and shape of dinnerware and arrangement of elements on the plate. Chefs were traditionally taught to plate odd to even numbers of components on the plate. However, our research with more than 5000 people showed two plates of food side by side and asked which plate was preferred based on the look. Turns out that the odd vs even arrangement really doesn’t matter. Rather, the key is how much food appears to be on the plate!
Pretty much everything has some influence on taste perception and hedonics
Research shows we also find a preference for linear elements ascending to the right like in a success graph. Chefs are picking up on this too. Again, this seems implicit in the work of some cooks, but making the benefit of beautiful plating explicit can help chefs, baristas, and mixologists decide whether the effort is really worth the hard work that nuances like these take. KT: Finally, does culinary creativity fall under the category of art or of science in your opinion? CS: I would say it is art inspired by science – or perhaps art constrained by science. However, this constraint works in a positive way. Unconstrained creativity can be overwhelming, so science can often help to provide some guidelines or boundary conditions to help constrain the otherwise unbounded creative space. I also think that culinary artistry can be measured and assessed, which can prove really useful to the culinary artist trying to convince their bosses of the benefits of, for example, buying that new set of plates, or spending so long on that perfect ascending-to-the-right line when plating their dish. We have also worked with the world’s top barista Maxwell Colonna-Davies in Bath to quantify the uplift of adding art to the latte. Prof Spence is currently working on his third book Sense Hacking which explores ways in which we can use the power of the senses to hack our experience of home, sleep, work, dating, and other quotidian activities. It is due to be published by Viking Penguin in September 2020.
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CULINARY ARTS BRIEF LOOK
MADE UNDER THE INFLUENCE Is alcohol a boost or a burden for the creative mind? There may be benefits to alcohol intake in terms of liberation of thinking, but where is the sweet spot for creativity and can this be determined by neuroscience?
For nearly as long as humans have roamed the planet, we have been fermenting fruits and grains to create a mind-altering liquid called alcohol. What is even more interesting is that some of our greatest creative minds, from Socrates to Alexander McQueen, have associated some of their most famous accomplishments with the consumption of alcohol. But in cultures where drinking is common, are we also more creative as a result? This question is quite difficult to answer, as creativity is a challenging thing to measure. Nonetheless, one of the facets we can assess is the neurological moment of illumination, the eureka moment, sometimes experienced during the euphoric state induced by alcohol. There is a general assumption that alcohol is indeed an aid for the creative mind, due to its ability to reduce inhibitions and mediate inspiration. And so, our scientific query becomes apparent: how might alcohol aid cognitive creativity? First and foremost, we must think about the
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scenarios in which we drink alcohol. For artists, philosophers, or even scientists this may well be in the company of fellow intellectuals or peers, which undoubtedly provides an arena for debate, discussion and the development of new ideas. For example, it is hard to disagree that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels might not have developed some of their groundbreaking ideas had they not been drinking their way across Europe together. Additionally, alcohol may also facilitate ‘psychological distance’ – a cognitive separation between the self and the constraints of the workplace as outlined by sociologist Sergiu Bălțătescu (Bălțătescu, 2001). Another factor would be the lack of inhibitions which alcohol is known to bring about. It doesn’t take a scientist to imagine the importance a lack of inhibitions plays in the creative process, especially when twinned with a sense of euphoria and freedom from the restraints of social norms and societal expectations.
Expressed in neurological terms, we can see how alcohol may facilitate the development of new ideas due to a lack of inhibitions and acute anxiolysis. Back in 2012, Dr Jenifer Wiley and a group of psychological researchers from the University of Illinois decided to put this assumption to the test using a fascinating approach. The study set out to discover if the consumption of alcohol acted as an aid to creative problem-solving (Jarosz et al., 2012). The study recruited two groups of social drinkers between the ages of 21 and 30, 20 of whom drank during the study while the other 20 remained sober. The drinkers received vodka and cranberry juice served in three equal doses in order to elevate blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to about 0.075 – just below the UK driving limit. Both groups then had to complete a creative problem-solving task called the Remote Associates Test (RAT), which asks subjects to find the missing link between a set of seemingly random and unrelated words. Interestingly, Wiley and her colleagues found that the mildly intoxicated individuals solved the problems more quickly than their sober counterparts. Furthermore, the intoxicated individuals were more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of sudden insights, or eureka moments. Wiley writes: ‘Creative problem solving may benefit from a more diffuse attentional state and...moderate intoxication may be one way to alter attentional states to be more conducive to creative processing.’(Jarosz et al., 2012) It should be emphasised that the apparent creative boost in this study was associated with the ingestion of a moderate amount of alcohol – about one to two small glasses of wine. Above the 0.075 BAC level, however, alcohol quickly begins to impair one’s capacity for creative cognition. Therefore, although the idea that drinking taps into a creative side of our brain is exciting, we have to consider that anything above this relatively small intake could have dramatically different results. Imagine if Wiley had doubled or even tripled her dose? At that point one’s cognitive ability would decrease dramatically into what could only be described as an incomprehensible mess. Backing up this point is Pete Sheehan, an experimental jazz musician and dancer with over 30 years’ performance experience. Sheehan recalls his
own usage of alcohol as a creative, and describes a small window of his life when drinking alcohol was creatively beneficial: ‘The “sweet spot” normally took place in conversation socially when I lost my introspection, but this quickly tipped over and I began to think I was cleverer than I actually was. It lasted for about half-an-hour before I felt out of control again. My drinking self had a much reduced artistic palette too.’ (Pete Sheehan) This account supports Wiley’s study which suggests a limited ingestion window for alcohol to augment creativity. But what about the wider effects of alcohol consumption? Wiley’s study only considered the short-term effects immediately after drinking. And yet it was not until Sheehan dramatically reduced his alcohol intake that he discovered how much the long-term use of alcohol was negatively affecting his practice. Sheehan recalls: ‘When I stopped drinking I stopped waiting half a day for my brain to warm up. This included every activity – even the mundane... Reduced alcohol and periods of abstinence gave me a greater emotional literacy and depth. It meant that I could play more directly with simplicity as well as having much greater technical facility to actually translate what was in my head to my instrument. The only problem sometimes was dealing with the sheer abundance of creativity.’ (Pete Sheehan) It may not be so surprising that in the short term, and in low doses, alcohol may aid the creative process by broadening our perspectives, thus aiding our ability to solve analytical problems in ways our sober minds might not have even considered. However, like most things that change our brain chemistry and induce a sense of euphoria, the key to unlocking the creative powers of alcohol relies heavily on the self-restraint of the individual. As hinted by Sheehan, excessive alcohol use and long-term abuse can permanently damage both brain anatomy and functionality (Camchong et al., 2013). Clearly, there is a fine line between the optimum state of alcohol-induced inspiration, and being one sip of wine away from stumbling over your own words. However, if it worked for Hemingway, maybe a little liquid inspiration will help the next time you hit that creative wall.
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CULINARY ARTS BRIEF LOOK
HUNGRY EYES How does our brain respond to food photography and how might a greater understanding of the neural mechanisms behind these responses influence the food industry and social culinary habits?
On Instagram, among the countless selfies and moody cityscapes, the images that draw the most attention always seem to be of food. Indeed, a particularly alluring image of food can even make your mouth water. #Food is among the top 25 hashtags on the platform, but this phenomenon is not just happening on social media. From MasterChef binges on the television and the ever-expanding cookery revolution on wider media, we just can’t get enough of looking at images of food. But why do we seek out something that elicits a desire we cannot necessarily satisfy? Lucas Smith is a food photographer who enjoys new culinary experiences and dining out. For him, food photography is an extension of these experiences. He says, ‘It’s human nature to be interested in food. In some Asian cultures, greetings may translate as, “Have you eaten?” I think people posting what they’re about to tuck into is similar. People want to share the excitement, the anticipation and the experience – technology has given us the tools to do that.’
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Long gone are the days when you needed a studio and all manner of obscure equipment to make dishes look appetising. With digital cameras – and even smartphones – you can capture attractive images even in a dimly-lit restaurant. Smith says, ‘Making food look good in photographs is to make it look real. I try to convey what it feels like to be there as a diner.’ There is also a big trend towards moving images online – be it videos or GIF loops – which can make food look even more realistic and appealing. This is backed up by a recent study, which demonstrates that not only do moving images evoke stronger brain responses than static images, but we also find moving images more aesthetically pleasing (McDowell & Haberman, 2019). This is why Smith often takes a series of images and turns them into an animation loop for Instagram. He says, ‘I also like to capture the steam or do a sauce pour or an egg run, as we enjoy those when we eat. You relish the cutting or the first dip, and I use these elements to create dynamism.’
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Sharing and reacting to images of dishes on Instagram has gained so much momentum that it has revolutionised the way we dine. Googling ‘instagrammable restaurants’ returns pages and pages of restaurants, most of which have carefully designed their interiors to create perfect backdrops for social media, with aesthetically pleasing plating techniques taking centre stage. And, of course, eateries are coming up with ever more inventive and extravagant ways of presenting their cuisine to the extent that some chefs make their dishes look like works of art, while others use unconventional crockery or even dry ice to capture the customers’ imaginations. Charles Michel is a chef, researcher and author, who is passionate about reconnecting people with what they eat. His view is that although we may enjoy looking at food photography the same way we contemplate a flower or work of art, the main reason for our fascination is instinctual. He says, ‘We like it so much because there is a subconscious link to our evolutionary biology – food is sustenance.’ From an evolutionar y perspective, our fixation on nutrition is entirely logical because nourishment is the most critical aspect of survival. In his book Evolving Brains John Morgan Allman argues that the brain evolved in the first place to help organisms to find nutriments, avoid toxins and stay alive and well nourished enough to find a mate and procreate (Allman & Martin, 1999; Allman, 2000). Other research reiterates
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the crucial role our vision has in the acquisition of food, even suggesting that red-green colour vision evolved in primates to help them spot berries in green foliage (Regan et al., 2001). So, 3.5 billion years (give or take) of evolution have effectively hardwired our brains to acquire nutrients. As a result, although seeing food is a powerful stimulus for the brain, our response is largely subconscious. Moreover, merely looking at an image of something edible not only sets off a cascade of intense neural activity, it can even raise your insulin levels (Spence et al., 2016). Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, says, ‘For the brain, there is little difference between seeing actual food and a photograph. Both trigger the same circuits in the brain. The visual cortex will light up first. Then maybe the taste areas, perhaps emotional areas will also be triggered as well as reward areas. If you try and hold back, you would also expect to see the area for self-control to light up. We know it’s a photograph, but our brain reacts as if it was looking at actual food.’ But our brains are even more easily fooled than that. Seeing images of food can produce some of the same satisfaction as actually eating it. Spence says, ‘You are producing a weaker version of the pleasure of eating. Looking at food means we engage in some simulation of eating, almost as if our brain is going through the motions of how we would eat it. This is why the first-person perspective in advertisements works better.
© L ucas S mith [P ico ’ s T acos , M anchester ]
© Lucas Smith [The Bridge Inn, Calver]
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For example, showing a spoon on the side where your dominant hand is, will make it easier for you to imagine eating it. Subconsciously, your brain is doing that. It’s stimulating by simulating.’ So, whereas on the conscious level we recognise a food photograph as such, on a subconscious level our brain reacts as if it were real. There is a myriad of studies measuring this kind of neural activity by scanning the brains of participants in MRI machines while they are shown images of food. A meta analysis of 17 such studies revealed that food selection is primarily guided by our visual system (van der Laan et al., 2011). Interestingly, the brain networks involved in the neural response to food are so diverse and heterogenous that researchers still can’t pinpoint the core brain regions that elicit our strong neural response to food. Brain regions as diverse as the orbitofrontal cortex, associated with behaviour regulation, and the insula, which is believed to be involved in consciousness, emotions, and cognitive function, were both consistently associated with food responses across studies. Individuals who were hungry also consistently showed a stronger response in the right amygdala (one of the oldest and most primitive parts of our neuroanatomy) and left lateral orbitofrontal cortex, while activity in the hypothalamus and ventral striatum was dependant on how energy-dense the depicted food was. This meta-analysis has also shown that our brains are more strongly activated if we’re hungry or viewing images of high-calorie foods. We all know instinctively that gazing at rich and filling dishes makes for much better entertainment than looking at healthier alternatives. Again, we can link this back to our genetic makeup because throughout most of our evolution, nutrition wasn’t
abundant. Thus, our tastes developed to favour high-calorie foods and our brains were trained to prioritise them. But, according to science, looking at images of food and our constant accessibility to said imagery is shown to make us hungrier and more likely to eat more high-calorie foods and bigger portions, due to these characteristics being normalised by food photography. In their article Spence and his co-authors find that ‘The pleasure of seeing virtual food while eating has in some sense superseded the pleasure of seeing the real thing,’ which leads them to wonder if our obsession with cookery programmes and cookbooks is a ‘coping strategy designed to make up for the loss of all the cooking-related sensations?’ (Spence et al., 2016) Looking at images of a scrumptious dish during a dreary commute can be a pleasant diversion or inspiration for where or what to eat next. But, while we enjoy food photography as a creative and artistic practice, our response to it is very much based in neurological and anthropological science. Contrary to what we might believe, research shows that food photography provides more than just aesthetic pleasure because it simultaneously activates the more primitive parts of our brains. That makes it important to feed our visual diet in a way that connects us with cooking, rather than doing the opposite. ‘My biggest hope is that food becomes a larger part of our daily life,’ says Michel. ‘Imagine food being at the centre of human societies again, as it used to be for our ancestors. I hope we’ll be able to create a deeper connection to food, become more mindful of what we consume and teach our children how to eat well. Food has a huge transformative potential and I want people to use it for good.’
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CULINARY ARTS TECHNICAL LOOK
MATTERS OF TASTE Neurogastronomic researchers and practitioners are increasingly exploring the ways in which our brains perceive taste and dining environments. Some neuroscientific research is confirming preferences we instinctively sense, but there are surprises too. So how might these discoveries influence culinary arts?
‘…certain things which you do inattentively, and only because you have seen others do them, are nonetheless based on the highest and most abstruse scientific principles… we cook imitating others, without pausing to see the principles of science at work (or sometimes not at work) in what we are doing.’ Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (Brillat-Savarin, 1825) Even in 1825, Brillat-Savarin, a lawyer, knew that food did not taste good by accident; cooking is an exact science that intentionally appeals to our humanness and the way our brains perceive flavour. Before the start of the twenty-first century, neuroscientists and world-renowned chefs would very rarely cross paths. However, in 2006 a new field emerged known as neurogastronomy (Dieguez, 2019). Coined by Yale neuroscientist Dr Gordon Shepherd, neurogastronomy merges the fields of neuroscience and culinary arts. It mainly focuses on how flavours are created in the brain. The principles of neurogastronomy are used today to enhance
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our dining experiences as well as create more nutrient-rich and flavourful meals. In 2015, the International Society for Neuro gastronomy (ISN) held its first meeting at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and eventually secured funding from the National Institute of Health. Collaborations between neuroscientists and chefs through ISN and specific restaurant initiatives have increased over the past few years, and the results have been both surprising and valuable. These projects have the capacity to change our diets and enhance our enjoyment of food by exploiting our brains’ natural sensory perception machinery. And so, to explore the beginnings of neurogastronomy. Gordon Shepherd published an article in Nature in 2006 describing how our sense of smell plays a role in our perception of flavour (Shepherd, 2006). Smell shapes how we respond to food by helping to form a cognitive and emotional ‘image’ in the brain. When we smell food, molecules called odorants bind to receptors in the olfactory epithelium which line the nasal cavity. From there, signal
transduction occurs across the axons of the olfactory epithelium, ultimately synapsing onto neurons in the olfactory bulb. Different neurons within the olfactory bulb respond to different odorant molecules. In this way, our brains create ‘odour maps’ that are topographically organised. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies in rats demonstrated that different but overlapping activity in the olfactory bulb is elicited in response to similar but not identical molecules (Sanganahalli et al., 2016). To put it simply: specific neurons in the brain are activated by specific smells. But the experience of flavour does not just involve our sense of smell. Shepherd explains that we use all of our sensory modalities to experience flavour. The food we eat falls into five taste categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savoury). Our tongue contains receptors that respond to each of these different molecules. This sensory information is also sent to our brain for higher-order interpretation and perception. First, the nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS) in the brainstem receives the information, which is then relayed through the hypothalamus, thalamus, and the primary taste cortex, which is part of the somatosensory cortex (Cutsforth-Gregory & Benarroch, 2017). Taste and smell information also converge in areas of the brain that are connected with emotion and pleasure, such as the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex. We also experience flavour using vision, sound, and touch – for example, when you see a juicy cheeseburger, touch an interesting textured food, or hear yourself chewing. The field of neurogastronomy aims to transform mundane eating into a ‘multisensory experience’. In addition, collaboration between neuroscientists, food scientists, and chefs can improve our dining experiences and steer us toward foods that are healthier and more flavourful. But does cooking actually change our brains? Food is not just a means to survive; consistently interacting with food and developing specialised cooking skills actually creates new neural connections in certain brain areas. A 2017 study conducted in Catanzaro, Italy, discusses how the brains of head chefs differ from those of age-matched non-experts (Cerasa et al., 2017). Most studies of neuroplasticity in the brain have focused on skill acquisition and development in musicians or athletes. However, head chefs are
The experience of flavour does not just involve our sense of smell
just as much experts in their field. Advanced cooking skills require impeccable motor coordination and cognitive abilities, such as shifting attention swiftly and efficiently. Experts such as musicians and chess players have increased concentrations of neurons in certain brain areas. Cerasa et al hypothesised that the brains of head chefs would show differences in brain tissue concentration compared to non-experts, similar to those of musicians (Cerasa et al., 2017). Particular focus was placed on the cerebellum, an area of the brain that is essential for motor coordination and balance. The anterior part of the cerebellum is known for being involved in motor execution, coordination, and predicting and planning movements. In contrast, the posterior portion is associated with regulation of executive functions, such as language, attention and spatial processing. Voxel-based morphometry (VBM) was used in conjunction with structural MRI to measure the concentration of brain tissue in the cerebellums of head chefs and control subjects. Interestingly, head chefs showed an increase in grey matter (GM) volume in the anterior (motor control) portion of the cerebellum. The increased GM volume in the anterior cerebellum was associated with the amount of synchronisation and movement required in the kitchen. Similarly, the increase in GM in the posterior portion of the cerebellum was significantly correlated with scores on an executive function task. It is important to note that there were no significant differences in white matter (WM) volume between head chefs and non-experts. This suggests that neurons are adapting over time with cooking practice. Enhanced GM volume signifies growth of
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neuronal connections, or synapses. This plasticity allows for advancement of skills such as cooking because neurons that control executive functioning and motor coordination are finely tuned and primed to fire and communicate with each other. Ultimately, developing a better understanding of neuroplastic changes in the brain due to food-related activities will greatly inform both scientists and those in the culinary world. This valuable information can serve to enrich our experiences with food and is already beginning to do so. Chef Jozef Youssef started Kitchen Theory in London, where he collaborates with University of Oxford Professor, Charles Spence. Together they investigate and employ knowledge from the field of food perception to create innovative and multisensory dining experiences (kitchen-theory. com, 2019) Their techniques include the use of dry ice and soundscapes to heighten the senses associated with the food. In his book The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining, Charles Spence describes how modern-day chefs are using ‘food as theatre’. This is not only entertaining for the diners, but it also allows them to truly enjoy the food (Spence & Piqueras-Fiszman, 2014). Nowadays, especially in busy metropolitan areas, people eat quickly and return to work immediately. These new multisensory immersive dining experiences force people to slow down and savour every bite while experiencing all the sensory stimulation that food has to offer. Spence says that in addition to the taste and smell of food and beverages, sensory stimuli such as the colour of the plate, shape of the glass, names of dishes, and the music playing in the background all influence our experiences while eating. Another odd but interesting sensory dining experience is dark dining (Brooke, 2018). At Dans le Noir (French for ‘in the dark’) restaurants, which have branches in major cities across the world, including London, people eat in complete darkness. The lack of visual cues from the food enables eaters to sharpen their other senses, such as taste, touch, and smell. Zach Brooke, a writer for online magazine The Takeout, says that the experience was frightening and it felt like ‘the shadows were suffocating’ him. Not an experience for everyone then maybe, but a fascinating experience for some. And many highly esteemed chefs around the world use the concepts behind neurogastronomy
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to attempt to shift our perception of food and appetite. Instead of evoking food cravings through salt, sugar, and fat, these chefs aim to activate neural pathways in the brain that divert attention to more nutritious but equally flavourful foods. UK chef Heston Blumenthal uses a method called encapsulation for the dishes in his three MichelinStarred restaurant Fat Duck. He puts fewer, larger grains of salt and spices in his dishes so that the overall sodium content is reduced but the flavour is preserved. Dishes like this presumably trigger similar reward and satiety signals in our brain without as much consumption of salt, sugar, or fat. Some have used the term molecular gastronomy to describe interaction between food and science. Blumenthal, however, prefers to describe the field more simply: ‘Molecular makes it sound complicated…and gastronomy makes it sound elitist…We may use modern thickeners, sugar substitutes, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, sous vide, dehydration, and other non-traditional means but these do not define our cooking. They are a few of many tools that we are fortunate to have available as we strive to make delicious and stimulating dishes.’ There are many benefits to culinary experimentation. Techniques in neurogastronomy may be able to help people experience their favourite flavours without ingesting all the fat and calories (Sheikh, 2017). Of course, pleasure from good flavour is far from the only gratifying element of culinary experience. As discussed, every aspect of eating is stimulating, interesting, and pleasurable if you pay attention to it. Tasty food stimulates the reward centres in the brain that release dopamine and other neurotransmitters, which leads to continued motivation to eat. When neuroadaptations in the brain proliferate, people can continue to crave this rewarding experience despite being satiated. There are potential benefits to people focusing on other aspects of the eating experience such as the texture of a hotdog, the sizzling of a steak on the grill, or the bright colours of a fruit salad. By shifting our perspective to acknowledge the multisensory aspect of eating, we may be able to substantially alter culinary habits. One thing is for sure, expanding our knowledge of neurogastronomy will keep foodies on the prowl for that perfect bite well into the future.
B IOG R APHIES 011 / CHERYL SAFREN
Brain Stem (2013) Chemistry on copper, 24”H x 32”W My process is rooted in experimentation with chemical processes. No art or photographic materials were used in Brain Stem. A transparent oxide film deposited on the metal surface produces some of the colors you see. The colours develop when part of the light striking the oxide surface reflects and part passes through the film before reflecting off the metal below. When the delayed light reappears and combines with the surface light waves, they may either reinforce or cancel each other out, generating a specific hue. The thickness of the oxide film dictates the colour. Each time one views the actual copper panel; new things can be discovered because shifting light on the copper and the viewer’s movement alter our perception. When the light dims or strikes at oblique angles the color becomes saturated and majestic. Brain Stem was the product of research that I did for an eight-panel public art commission for the James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Research Building on the Salt Lake City campus of the University of Utah. I had sketches that I made but didn’t use for that commission and created Brain Stem from that research. It has since been sold and resides in Montana.
021 / BARBARA KENDRICK
Age of Anxiety (2020), Archival inkjet print, digital collage, 14 x 11 inches In making collages I look for a collision of ideas, an uneasy relationship that provokes my imagination. I craft these unlikely connections into fictions, exploring themes of bodily transformation, power and control. I am 88 years old. To confront my fears of contracting dementia or Alzheimer’s, I started using images of the neurons associated with those diseases. For the past 3 years I have made digital collages, combining images of neurons with others I have collected, to form figures in varying states of anxiety. Age of Anxiety, made during the Covid-19 quarantine, reflects not only what I felt as one of the elderly at risk, but also wears a mask made of neurons.
030 / KYLIE LOCKWOOD
Grafting the pupil to the fingertips, Studio at Caldera Arts Residency in Sisters, Oregon (2016), Kylie Lockwood Detail of Grafting the Pupil to the Fingertip (2016) Eye Stylus (2016) Drawings made using eye tracking technology by Daryn R Blanc-Goldhammer and Kylie Lockwood Grafting the Pupil to the Fingertip (2016) Binaural audio recorder made with silicone and marble dust, 3D print from brain scan, ophthalmic head restraint, books, silicone with pigment, pigmented porcelain, graphite, steel, stoneware ceramic, polished aluminum, aluminum with milk of magnesia patina, and plaster The fingertip is an image-forming organ of sight. The eye is the part of the body you use to meet a surface without overlapping or penetrating in order to grasp what something feels like. I am interested in this cross wiring of eyes and hands, the membranes of our eyes in dialogue with the haptic intelligence of our skin. In 2015 I began collaborating with Daryn R BlancGoldhammer from the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oregon. This project was commissioned by The Third Culture Projects, a series created in conjunction with the Oregon Arts Commission to invite collaborations between scientists working in the Lewis Integrated Science Building (LISB) at the University of Oregon with artists from across the country. Our project titled Grafting the Pupil to the Fingertip focused on investigations in human perception and how those experiences can be represented. I created sculpture pulling from the encounters and conversations I had during my residency in the labs. Using data harvested during an MRI study on memory I produced a sculpture of my brain. Daryn and I utilized eye tracking technology to make drawings employing our eyes as a stylus. Immersed in the writings and drawings of Santiago Cajal, I transcribed his drawings of the retina’s nervous impulse pathways on to broken ceramic fragments of my hand. The main part of the project focused on making a sculpture that functioned as a
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binaural audio recorder. I modeled the sculpture off a traditional marble bust and produced it from a silicone cast of my head. Through the use of microphones mounted in the sculpture’s ear canals this device creates a spatialized sound experience that mimics the sense of what it is like to hear through the ears of a human head, my human head. Carrying my head in my hands, I’ve made multiple recordings of various experiences at land and sea, exploring and testing the limits of the three-dimensional sound space this sculpture captures and creates. This work examines the space between my firsthand experience of place and the mediation of that experience by way of recording though this surrogate self.
045 / JACKIE NEON
058 / SCOTT LAMBRIDIS Refract (2020)
Scott Lambridis’ stories have also appeared in The Chicago Review, Slice, Memorious, Cafe Irreal, and other journals. His first novel received the 2012 Dana Award, and is represented by Katherine Boyle of Veritas Literary Agency. He completed his MFA from San Francisco State where he received the Miriam Ylvisaker Fellowship and three literary awards. Before that, he earned a degree in neurobiology, and co-founded Omnibucket.com
060 / TIM EDGAR
Node 1 (2020), Pen and Collage Materials on Cartridge Paper
Psychosonic Geo Soundscapes (2020) Each soundscape is composed using field recordings and manipulated to create an atmospheric sonic environment where a listener is able to engage their imagination and create their own personalized experience creating a Psycho Sonic Geo Soundscapes. Perception is a central factor in my work: the relationship the person develops to what they are hearing in the Soundscape as a result of the mode of transmission. The visuals for the soundscapes are created from data bending the audio file in video format they are discreetly animated so that they captivate without overly distracting in order to allow listeners to get lost into their experience. Jackie Neon is a sound and mixed media conceptual artist. Identity, perception, and duality are key themes throughout her work. Sonically she is inspired by psychoacoustics and how we translate what we hear. In order to execute her conceptual work, she embraces a variety of mediums, techniques, and tools. She aims to create work that people can engage with, regardless of background, culture, or education. In 2019 she spoke about her paper, ‘Challenges of a Sound Artist: Can we listen without looking?’ at the Digital Culture & AudioVisual Challenges DCAC at Ionian University in Corfu, Greece, and presented Sense Circuit a S.T.E.A.M workshop at FEMeeting hosted by Cultivamos Cultura in Portugal. Jackie is a native New Yorker who comes from a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural family, aspects of her life which are reflected in her work. She holds a BFA from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA in Design and Technology from Parsons.
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My drawings embrace a range of contexts encouraging dichotomous readings such as micro/ macro or cellular/cosmic, exploring frail systems and connections. Within neuroscience I found many elements related to the thinking behind my drawings – prominently the processes occurring at synapses. Small gaps between marks in the drawings and tensions created there resonate with the activity within the synaptic cleft in regulating activities in the brain. My fascination with the structure of neurons led me to the drawings of Golgi and Ramon y Cajal, reaffirming my belief in the exciting relationship between the expressive and the scientific. Drawing is a form of expression representing an aspect of myself, but until exploring areas of neuroscience I hadn’t considered that it could be a more direct representation of chemical activities within me. These discoveries have led me to being more conscious of such aspects when making the drawings, but my work has not used these as a driving force. Instead, the aim of the drawings has always been to respond to and represent the physiological and psychological aspects of the self, through a range of structured and random methods of mark-making.
071 / AUDREY RANGEL AGUIRRE
Human Brain Cells Silicon (2019), Light sculpture made with LED light and Silicon, 30cm X 25cm The idea behind this piece was to approach the art-making process in way that mirrored the neural
activity in the human brain. In this artistic process I traced patterns of silicon on a surface. These patterns represent sound waves translated into light and free movement of the hand translated into patterns that correspond to activity in the brain. How can we trace the neural activity in our brain and translate it into visual data? Translation means creation. Translation from sound waves into light. In the act of translating there is always the opportunity to generate new objects, new meanings, and new systems that produce different types of interactions. In this piece, sound waves generate enough energy to create light. The neural activity and brain mysteries are being traced into patterns that, illuminated by light, give us a poetic and artistic image of neuroscience.
080 / K DAY
The lies are coming from inside the house (2020) K. Day is a loose collection of neuroses living, working and writing somewhere near the bottom of the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand.
081 / ALISON LAM
Autism: Journey before diagnosis (2018-2020) ‘greatness that exists in the inconspicuous and over-looked details’ - Leonard Koren (2008) The series ‘Autism: Before Diagnosis’ depicts my journey and research exploring ways to express my experiences as a mother of two autistic children and the material choices I make in order to convey this journey visually. As a mother, I observe the frustrations and difficulties my two boys encounter in their attempts to communicate, I collect their conversations and interactions with myself, each other and those around them. Through my work, I aim to make tangible that which we all take for granted: our agency as individuals with the right to be recognised and understood. This dialogue is essential in that it allows my children to understand their place in the world. The collection of discarded metals particularly the irregular, fragmentary nature of these found objects reflected the way I see my children being perceived by the world around them. Like these fragments, my children are unique and, although they differ from the norm, they are beautiful in their own right. I see the potential for beauty in what others might believe to be ‘unwanted’ or ‘useless’. www.alisonlam.art @alisonlamart
102 / PETER BRUNO Hamlet/Starlet (2018)
Mixed-media construction, 153/4 x 141/4 x 71/2in Peter Bruno is a writer, teacher, and artist living in Vermont. His artwork has appeared in Zig Zag, PhotoPlace Gallery, Maclure Library, August First, and the Brick Box, in Vermont and The Shed in Brooklyn, NY. His poem ‘Cynanthropic Daze’ was recently published in the anthology, Poems from the Lockdown. His chapbook, Garibaldi Avenue, was published by Soho Letterpress in 2017. He received a Writing/Teaching Fellowship from Vermont Studio Center, and has studied at Vermont College of Fine Arts, The Carving Studio, and the Rudolf Steiner Institute. His theatre work with high school students has won several awards in Vermont.
103 / LILY KOSMICKI
pseudoknots / stemloops (2020) Lily Rose Kosmicki is a person, but sometimes feels like an alien in this world. By trade she is a librarian at the public library and by night she is a collector of dreams. Her zine Dream Zine won a Broken Pencil Zine Award for Best Art Zine 2018. Her work appears in GASHER, glowworm, Meat for Tea, where is the river, Cathexis Northwest Press, The Fanzine, Interim: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics, and Punt Volat.
116 / SARAH WESTCOTT Instrumental (2020)
Sarah Westcott’s first poetry collection, Slant Light, was published by Pavilion Poetry in 2016 and her pamphlet Inklings (Flipped Eye) was a PBS Pamphlet Choice. Her poems have appeared in magazines including Poetry Review, Magma and Butcher’s Dog, on beermats, billboards and buses, and in anthologies including Best British Poetry and The Forward Book of Poetry. Her work has also been installed in jukeboxes and baked into sourdough bread. Recent awards are the London Magazine poetry prize and the Manchester Cathedral prize. She was a news journalist for twenty years and now teaches poetry at City Lit in London.
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117 /JODY RASCH
Thought – MRI 3 (2020) Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 105 inches “Art is science made clear.” Jean Cocteau (1889 - 1963) French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic. Science brings us a landscape that was invisible to previous generations. It can show us the depths of an atom, the inner workings of bodies and the expanse of our universe. These images inform our worldview and bring up fundamental questions about the nature of our relationships within our society. My work looks for a deeper meaning behind the scientific images and translates them for the observer. Through playing with scale, color and design, I create images that reinterpret the scientific images and invite the observer to appreciate the beauty and mystery of the unseen. Thought - MRI 3 is part of my Thought series. The brain is the centre of our understanding. This series invites the observer to explore their minds and see into the thoughts of others to explore their sense of rationality. For more information about my work, please visit: https://www.laminaproject.com
128 / MATT BRYDEN Blind Spot (2020)
Matt Bryden is a poet and teacher living in Somerset, England. His pamphlet Night Porter, which documents life in a Yorkshire hotel, won the Templar prize in 2010, while his first collection Boxing the Compass was launched at Keats House. In 2018, his Lost and Found project won a Literature Matters Award from the Royal Society of Literature and in 2019 he won the William Soutar Prize and the Charroux Memoir Prize. Matt has an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths College and runs the Somerset Young Poets Competition. www.mattbryden.co.uk
129 / TALINE TEMIZIAN
Knowing Me Knowing Me (2020) Digital from FMRI (Own Brain) I take a transhumanist perspective on memory and trauma by investigating how neural activity contributes to lived experience and how artists can change the way we perceive the world and influence our pursuit of happiness.
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My works depict a ‘place of memory’ situated between parallel universes and RL (Real Life), manifesting complex networks comprised of scientific methodologies, conceptual discourse and personal narrative. These works employ multiple processes and media, presenting raw yet technically intricate objects and installations that produce bold sensory and emotional experiences. The aim being to interrogate the state we are in and deconstruct one’s post-humanist self, in order to replace it with the transhumanist promise of eternal and idyllic life through science and technology. Based in London, with projects internationally, I collaborate with philosophers, scientists, composers, technologists and filmmakers in pursuit of a self-promised ‘utopia’ where I can ‘regain the lost time and space.’ My process is physical and conceptual. including reverse thinking based on a Quantum Time-Lapse. I observe the brain and memory influenced by the external or internal triggers. I enjoy construction and deconstruction, placing objects in existing systems or inventing new systems which transform the artistic output.
136 / WILLIAM FILLMORE
William & George, Painted Stoneware and Wood, 10in x 18in x 12in Bill, Painted Stoneware and Steel, 18in x 4in x 5in My work sarcastically giggles at the seemingly stagnant constancy of individual awareness and the mysterious decay of time. Whether ritualistically constructing and destroying familiar architectural structures, or humorously modelling a figure as it passes from childhood to death, my work is a humble sculptural record of my ridiculous nihilistic perception of the infinitude of time. Each piece stands as a grotesque surreal testament to the indelible sting of nostalgia and regret. While my larger body of work that features the pain and beauty found in memories both forgotten and the discarded, it persistently coasts on the edge of reverence for the tradition of object making and the temporality of experiential performance. My practice provides me with a sarcastic personal vision of both the mundane static present and the anxious mysteries of the future.
146 / DEBORAH PEARSE
Genetic Traces I & II, Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm ‘Genetic Traces’ depicts an abstracted interplay of our materiality and is from an on-going series of imagined internal body spaces titled, ’Body Mapping’. The imagery evokes visceral, sensory and cognitive experience, offering a creative expression of a micro or nonvisible world. This series began whilst studying for a BA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martin’s, alongside researching David Bohm’s theories on Implicate Order and Creativity and exploring ideas relating to Phenomenology. I am fascinated by consciousness, perception and our innate propensity to pattern match. This appears to suggest how as individuals we develop own personal circuitry through a combination of genetics, environment and our unique perceptual frame works, influencing how we relate to the world around us, ourselves and others. Yet, we learn there is huge adaptive plasticity in our brains, as in the research of V.S. Ramachandran and others, offering ways to continue explorations into various behaviours including Dementia, Depression, Synaesthesia and AI. Having also worked as a Hypnotherapist and actor I am also exploring visually, sound patterns and brain wave states. So, the opportunity to collaborate through a creative cross fertilisation of ideas between the arts and sciences is hugely appealing.
150 / SUSAN ALDWORTH
Transience 6 (2013) Etching and aquatint, 35 x 25 cm Susan Aldworth is an artist working primarily with print, film and installation who investigates the relationship between mind and body. Since 1999, she has explored the depths of consciousness and the transience of self in her experimental work. In her Transience prints she explores the brain as matter, a historical first, etching directly from human brain tissue. Thinking about the brain as an object, Aldworth wanted to translate the physicality of the brain into an artwork. It would be the ultimate portrait of someone. Working in partnership with the Parkinson’s Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital, Aldworth developed a technique to capture the authentic marks of the brain on an etching plate. Working
with a human brain was an emotional experience; the images revealed themselves gradually through this very ancient process and the prints, although taken from a cross-section, unexpectedly seemed to expose a consciousness at work. Her work is held in many public and private collections including V&A, British Museum, and Wellcome Collection. Aldworth has exhibited widely including solo exhibitions at Fitzwilliam Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Aldworth teaches on the MA Art&Science at Central St Martin’s, and is a regular presenter on BBC Radio. More at www. susanaldworth.com
151 / SUZANNE EDISON
Bicameral Teen At The Mall (2020) Suzanne Edison MA, MFA. writes most often about the intersection of illness, healing, medicine and art. Suzanne’s recent chapbook, ‘The Body Lives Its Undoing,’ was published in 2018 by Benaroya Research Institute. Poetry can be found in Michigan Quarterly Re-view; JAMA; Canadian Medical Association Journal; HEAL; Naugatuck River Review; Rise Up Review; Persimmon Tree; SWWIM; Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine; The Ek-phrastic Review, and in the anthologies Face to Face: Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism and Awakening and The Healing Art of Writing. She lives in Seattle, is a board member of the Cure JM Foundation, a recent Hedgebrook alum and teaches at Richard Hugo House.
152 / NIKITA EPHANOV Retracing Memories (2020) Photograph
With this photographic work, I seek to question the veracity of memory recollection. Presented below is my outline of how memory is overwritten, skewed, and perpetuated in a state of neurological flux. Our minds inhabit a state of constant flexibility, never neurologically linked in the same fashion as the previous moments. Distant recollections become rearranged, and tangled in the knotty linkage of neurological networks. Combined with a visually potent photo object, childhood mementos can resurface absurdist realities.
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RE FE RE NCES WAVES OF CREATIVITY
THE METRICS OF MUSE
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Abraham, A., (2018). The Neuroscience of Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Contreras-Vidal, J. L., Cruz-Garcia, J., & Kopteva, A., (2017). Towards a whole body brain-machine interface system for decoding expressive movement intent Challenges and Opportunities. 2017 5th International Winter Conference on Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), 1–4. Contreras-Vidal, J. L., Kever, J., Robleto, D., & Rosengren, J. (2019). At the Crossroads of Art and Science: Neuroaesthetics Begins to Come into Its Own. Leonardo, 52(1), 103–106. Contreras-Vidal, J. L., Robleto, D., Cruz-Garza, J. G., Azorín, J. M., & Nam, C. S. (Eds.). (2019). Mobile Brain-Body Imaging and the Neuroscience of Art, Innovation and Creativity. Cham: Springer Cruz-Garza, J. G., (2019). Neural Characterization of the Improvisational Creative Process. (Doctoral dissertation). Cruz-Garza, J. G., Acharya, A., & Contreras-Vidal, J. L., (2019). Writing the brain – brain to brain synchronization during a creative writing workshop. Neuroscience Outreach and Education. Neuroscience 2019, Chicago, IL. Cruz-Garza, J. G., Brantley, J. A., Nakagome, S., Kontson, K., Megjhani, M., Robleto, D., & Contreras-Vidal, J. L., (2017). Deployment of Mobile EEG Technology in an Art Museum Setting: Evaluation of Signal Quality and Usability. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 527. Cruz-Garza J.G., Chatufale G., Robleto D., & Contreras-Vidal J.L., (2019) Your Brain on Art: A New Paradigm to Study Artistic Creativity Based on the ‘Exquisite Corpse’ Using Mobile Brain-Body Imaging. In: Nijholt A. (eds) Brain Art. Cham: Springer, 283-308 Cruz-Garza, J. G., Hernandez, Z. R., Nepaul, S., Bradley, K. K., & Contreras-Vidal, J. L., (2014). Neural decoding of expressive human movement from scalp electroencephalography (EEG). Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 188. Cruz-Garza, J. G., Kopteva, A. E., Fleischhauer, J. A., & Contreras-Vidal, J. L., (2019). Into the Mind of an Artist: Convergent Research at the Nexus of Art, Science, and Technology. In J. L. Contreras-Vidal, D. Robleto, J. G. Cruz-Garza, J. M. Azorín, & C. S. Nam (Eds.), Mobile Brain-Body Imaging and the Neuroscience of Art, Innovation and Creativity Cham: Springer International Publishing. 61–74. Glentzer, M., (2015) The dancer. The neuroscientist. The skull cap. Houston, Houston Chronicle. Available from: https:// www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/ Brainy-Dance-6096675.php [accessed February 24 2020] Kontson, K. L., Megjhani, M., Brantley, J. A., Cruz-Garza, J. G., Nakagome, S., Robleto, D., White, M., Civillico, E., & Contreras-Vidal, J. L., (2015). Your Brain on Art: Emergent Cortical Dynamics During Aesthetic Experiences. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 626. Todd, E., Cruz-Garza, J. G., Moreau, A., Templeton, J., & Contreras-Vidal, J. L., (2019). Self-conscience/Physical Memory: An Immersive, Kinetic Art Installation Driven by Real-Time and Archival EEG Signals. In: Nijholt A. (eds) Brain Art. Cham: Springer, 309-323
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