Saturday, June 13, 2015

Grace Lindsay - Thoughts from the New York Salon

“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night.”            

-Edgar Allen Poe

Creativity—that ineffable, elusive, know-it-when-you-see-it power that drives all innovation and progress—is unarguably a key component of the human experience. Within each of us is a source (of varying sizes to be sure) of novel concepts, fantastical images, and untested hypotheses that inform, and are informed by, our understanding of the world. These inner reservoirs are responsible not just for operas, sculptures, and novels, but for bridges, vaccines, and cell phones as well. With so much of our internal lives influenced by the processes of creativity and so much of our external lives touched by the products of it, it is surprising how little is known about creativity's biological underpinnings.What better way to encourage progress in this field than by getting together cognitive neuroscientists interested in creativity with the people who trade most directly in it, artists? 

On Saturday May 23rd, at the home of Director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function Harry Ballan, these two groups gathered over food and drink to share their experiments and experiences regarding the creative process. In attendance were several doctors, educators, and researchers including Anna Abraham, Rex Jung, Scott Barry Kaufman, and Peter Keller, all participants in the Symposium on the Imaginative Brain (chaired by Abraham and held during the Association for Psychological Science's conference). Representing the arts were musicians, theater professionals, and writers, including author and composer Bruce Adolphe and Professor of Theater Suzanne Burgoyne. Many attendees had met previously as participants at the Salzburg Global Seminar's Session 547: The Neuroscience of Art. They reconvened in New York to keep the dialogue between these two cultures going.

What's in a name?
Sitting in a plush armchair, Jung discussed his framework for how the brain produces creativity. Three networks of brain areas—the cognitive control network, saliency network, and default mode network—are responsible for three different functions: interacting with the external world, deciding where to allocate attention, and working with internal concepts, respectively. “Default mode network”, however, is an out-dated term: it was coined in 2001 to describe the state of the brain as it was “resting” between tasks in the fMRI scanner. And as Adolphe and other artists in the group pointed out, its a dismal description for the vast and varied landscapes of our internal worlds. Kaufman agrees and has lobbied for “imagination network” as a replacement, but Jung reminded everyone that that all three networks are required for the production of ideas. In his view, creativity works via a process of variation, selection, and retention. The default mode network is most closely associated with the first of these, making “variation network” a more suitable moniker.

Lingua franca
Naming rights aside, this division of labor in the brain resonated with many of the artists present. Mike Pope lamented the difficulty of playing bass when feeling too “in his head,” instead of focusing on the people and music surrounding him. Artistic production then seems slave to the proper balancing of these networks, to their “dynamic harmony.” Kaufman's work suggests that the ever-coveted “flow” state occurs when the saliency network is directing the river of attentional resources away from a self-critical inner perspective and to the task at hand. Flow indeed.Turning the tables, the experiences of the artists introduced an important distinction that resonated with the scientists: spontaneity is not equal to creativity. Too often, Adolphe remarked, scientists will study simple acts of spontaneity in an effort to understand creativity without appreciating the distinction. Spontaneity is happening constantly, in any speech or movement; creativity is a higher product, one that should build on previous work not merely repeat it. While strict boundaries were hard to agree upon (for example, does creativity require the output be completely novel to the person who created it?), these improvised definitions from the artists suggest a continuum from mere spontaneity to true, productive creativity. It is a spectrum that scientists will need to codify, and investigate.   

Sign language
Keller's work formalizes another axiom known to all actors and musicians: performance is a social act. Importantly, the interaction is not just between a performer and the audience, but amongst the performers themselves. Keller explores the principles of sociality in music by studying performance in solo and ensemble settings, honing in on the importance of adaptation and anticipation. While the former is corrective, the later is predictive, and heavily reliant on imagination for all but the simplest tasks. That is, to be able to anticipate beyond mere metronomic repetition, a musician must engage their mental imagery machinery to predict the actions of their peers. The subtle looks and small movements that may be imperceptible to audience members are carrying crucial information for the players, letting them know what's coming next and when.

Social mechanisms may also come into play in transcendent experiences. While the question of how particular pieces of music can create a transcendent experience is an open one, Ballan observed that various subcortical nuclei nay be entrained at about 60 beats a minute (or a multiple or divisor of 60).  There is evidence that brains in a social context may be entrained to the same auditory stimulus, and that coherence effects of the type observed in single brains may occur between and among brains.  Ballan described an informal experiment he performed during a lecture in which a large group (2,300 people) at Stanford played/sang Amazing Grace at 50, 60 and 70 beats a minute.  The self-reported "spiritual" experiences were systematically different at the three tempi.  At 50 bpm, people tended to describe the experience as "spiritual".  At 60 bpm they described it as "standing before God."  At 70, they described it as "intense."  Ballan speculated about why tempo variation should matter so much and in such consistent ways to the "spiritual" experience of music and about the social aspects of shared experiences among entrained brains. 

First words
Much like the music of an ensemble player, a child is a product of its surroundings. What role, then, should creativity and the arts have in education? Joan Koenig, founder of Ecole Koenig, the first musical and artistic preschool in France (with a second in the works for New York City), emphasized the role of creative risk-taking at a young age as a means of instilling confidence and skill. Ballan and Kaufman agreed on the importance of play and exposure to song (even through the light rhythm of “parentese”) for development of literary skills. Scientists and educators alike, however, remained uncertain regarding the conditions for transference: how are some individuals creative across multiple disciplines while others excel in just one? Luckily, Kaufman may be able to shed light on this issue. He'll be convening creative leaders across disciplines such as science, art, the military, and religion to discuss their processes and their childhoods. However, as Abraham pointed out, artistic exploration is not just for the young; adults would be well-served by such outlets as well.

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”          
  -Albert Einstein

The night's discussions, as varied as they were, stemmed from the desire to understand a most fundamental ability of the brain: building clean and novel structure out of the mess of sensory bombardment we're given—creating order from chaos. And from this evening swirling with scientific theories and personal stories, accented with song and wine, certainly one clean message arises: there is a place for the joining of art and science under one roof, perhaps in one laboratory. And if Scott Barry Kaufman's rendition of the Les Misérables ballad “Stars” is any indication, even in one mind.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Anna Abraham - The Four Walls of an Empiricist - A Response to Ric's Ideas

It is a rare opportunity for someone like me, who uses the scientific method to understand the human imagination, to have a sounding board for my ideas in a truly reflective artist, particularly one who works in a medium that is very close to my own heart – the theatre.  Thank you Ric for abiding by the rules of improv with your “and yes” gesture.  I will only address some of issues you highlighted here, or else this will go on for pages on end.

Although it is true for all art forms, theatre provides an obvious space for exploring what you beautifully termed the "degrees of proportionality between stimulus and cascade" where the distinction between reality and fantasy is patently questionable, especially when considering the immersive and collaborative moment-to-moment experience of blending that occurs between both worlds during a performance. In fact, the mere preparation for a role can lead to a conceptual blurring between the actor/character, and can lead to fundamental shifts in conceptualization that can manifest in positive ways in terms of gaining insight to one’s own self (the example of Dustin Hoffmann in Tootsie: or have a negative impact by resulting in debilitating emotional distress (the example of Daniel Day Lewis and Hamlet:

This would suggest that qualitative distinctions like active-versus-passive are rather arbitrary, and that a continuum-based perspective must be necessarily adopted. Incidentally, this is what bears out in the empirical evidence from my own work in the neuroscience of creative conceptual expansion where I look for commonalities between the active and passive modes.

It is worth noting that such a continuum is also apparent in art forms that don’t inherently feature the temporal dimension. Alison Jackson’s photography (, for instance, provides stellar examples of the dynamic nature of the active/passive continuum. Realism is usually conceived of in a bottom-up manner, such as in the context of computer game programming where so much of the focus is on creating worlds that are as accurate and representative as possible in terms of perceptual features. But Jackson takes a top-down conceptual approach to creating realism. She does this by presenting peephole/voyeuristic/mind’s eye views of scenes using perceptually degraded images of celebrity doppelgangers engaging in the kind of activities that we imagine then to be doing in private. The audience takes the leap into the narrative and unwittingly participates in completing the fake story by believing it at some level.

So why do empiricists make these arbitrary divisions? I suppose that the simple answer is that there is no other way to commence the scientific exploration of difficult constructs. We have to try to systematize and identify the essence of the phenomenon in question. The course of action, in my own case, is to then investigate it using a variety of direct and oblique approaches where the focus is not only on gathering proof for the ideas, but also establishing conditions under which they would be disproved. And the impetus is to go beyond each step by exploring and building on the insights, integrating the many intricacies, and eventually (hopefully) cultivate or evolve a comprehensive and systemic understanding of what is going on.

A central feature of art as the delivery system for fundamental insights or truths is the participatory/collaborative nature of its myriad forms. It works when the expressions of truth resonate with the audience, and there are unlimited manifestations of such expression. The fourth wall, in contrast, is entirely opaque in the case of scientific enquiry. And the task is to arrive at “the truth” in the form of generalizable principles. One is solely dependent on linkages to be formed or altered between the various nodes of one’s own knowledge network to arrive at the crucial insights. The mind’s penchant for detecting conceptual isomorphisms makes this task easier, but at the same time also difficult as the bias to be seduced by easy explanations that resonate as true leads one to slide down the path of least resistance, clinging to ideas that only have manifest or face validity. The history of ideas is littered with so many examples of how scientists get things spectacularly wrong, despite the best intentions.

Speaking of isomorphisms, the dynamics of the theatre actually bears several strange parallels to the workings of the brain. As a narrative plays out, the objective reality/fiction distinction is blurred for the actors and the audience with both engaged, albeit in different ways, in the continual cycle of perceiving and anticipating this illusory world. A similar cycle is echoed in the brain, a supremely complex system, which fundamentally operates in service of receptive-predictive functions across different modes and contexts of experience. One can take this even further. Despite having to continually process information that varies in terms of how disjunctive it can be relative to one’s real world, there is rarely a sense of confusion or existential panic that stems from engaging with fictional worlds. We can be deeply and emotionally immersed in such worlds and leave them unscathed, with our conceptions of reality still intact. This stability in phenomenology corresponds with certain aspects of processing in the brain, which is continually bombarded with information about the outer environment. The stimulation that is received by our senses is perplexingly complex and relentless. Into the brain goes chaos, but out of it comes our ordered view of the world.

Such cycles bring to mind something that Aryeh spoke of during his presentation in Salzburg. About how the space between the real and imaginary world is where creativity exists.

Thanks again Ric for this gratifying and helpful exchange!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Patricia Leavy - Responses to Salzburg

Dear all,

I had SUCH a profound experience participating in our seminar. I really felt being with all of you was liking winning the golden ticket. Thank you! The possibilities and connections that opened up in my mind have forever changed the way I think and see. My sincere apologies for not joining the blog discussion sooner (although I have been creeping in and reading as much as I can). I have had nearly nonstop travel since leaving Salzburg. Lots of exciting speaking gigs I would love to tell you about as well as follow-up with several of you regarding possibilities for collaboration. For now, I’d like to share two things. Firs, an essay I was recently asked to write for The Sociological Imagination.
Social Fiction: Writing Social Science Research as Fiction by Patricia Leavy

Second, I recently did an interview for the web series “Fresh Talk with Amy Leigh Mercree.” KAL-- I thought of you in response to the first question about freedom of expression (you can just watch the first few minutes if you want to see-- I didn’t say your name per the “needing permission to quote anyone” rule, but of course you can see I was thinking of you).

Patricia Leavy 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Jennifer Crouch - Updates Since Salzburg

I've been accepted on a residency in the Arctic Circle and will be working aboard a research vessel making art in October 2016 - gives me a lot of time to make connections with any researchers in the Arctic, particularly those focused on atmospheric physics and anything to do with water. Meanwhile work at the UCL Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging continues. Organising scientists is like herding cats, but progress on the project is going well. I'm running public engagement workshops every month with researchers developing 'experiences' aimed at the public that provide a step by step process of how scientists come to state that certain things are/are not the case. These experiences are scenarios involving problem solving, and ask the public "how do you know?" - we have yet to run focus groups with members of the public. the workshops Im running with researchers are called 'how do you know', where researchers have to explain to me how they carry out their research. Additionally I have assembled my loom (I did that on my own which I'm quite proud of) and will be weaving data over the next ten months. Website and online project archive are on their way, loom photo below.

I agree with Alina; the experience of SGS 547 has fundamentally broadened my horizons and approach to my work. You have all changed my life for the better! Some things were unresolved of course (given that the subjects of Neuroscience and Art are so huge) particularly concerning what happens to people when they leave school. We learn throughout life - of course - but I'm not confident that our agreement of the importance of Creativity in Education was applied, in any practical, sense as being something that is important throughout adulthood, in everyday life and as something that makes us happy (although some time my art makes me angry) and contributes to well being. 

Perhaps we (SGS fellows) are always being creative, thoughtful, analytical and philosophical, but this isn't something a workforce are encouraged to do. I'm worried about this. Having personally (as I'm sure many of you have) toiled away in mysery doing various jobs, desperately and anxiously fighting to afford rent and meet the costs of living, so much so that I couldn't move forward or feel free to create. Doing jobs that were so boring and degrading that i wanted to gouge my eyes out. We need to talk about work I think, and we need to talk about every day life. The banalities of everyday life were forgotten in our discussions.

Making is a process that I think can help people a great deal in everyday life. It gives people autonomy, it's empowering, provides opportunities for problem solving and self reflection. In my ideal world, everyone is encouraged to make and develop what artists call 'creative practice.' More so than they are encouraged to consume.

I can't back that up the universal benefits of creative practice  scientific at all but I think knowing how to make, understanding how rewarding and difficult it is to make clothes or plates or computers could make us more aware of ourselves, each other, economics, the product of labour and tools i.e. lathe, sewing machine or MRI scanner. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Steven Fowler - A World Without Words

I'm delighted to announce a new project: a World without Words, exploring the nature of human language, bringing together contemporary practitioners & pioneers in neuroscience and sensory aesthetics, to offer a fascinating and playful exploration of how words form our world.
Co-curated by writer & filmmaker Lotje Sodderland and artist & material engineer Thomas Duggan, a World without Words will present artworks, installations, performances, talks, discussions and readings that call into question how meaning maps into the brain over a series of events throughout 2015 & beyond, taking place in bespoke venues across London.
Across artform & discipline each event will explore that notion that while language is considered perhaps the most characteristic ability of the human species, very little is known about it. When curator Lotje Sodderland had an unprovoked brain haemorrhage, she woke to find a familiar stranger inhabiting her body, where her 'self' used to be. Unable to read, write, speak, or think coherently, she used this unique opportunity as a lens through which to explore the everyday assumptions of how we wield words to express ourselves, bringing a profoundly personal perspective to the contemporary Copernican revolution of neuroscience. A World Without Words is the latest in Lotje's body of work around visual perception and neurolinguistics, and you can read / see more about her previous work in the Guardian & in the film, My Beautiful Broken Brain.
The first event takes place at Apiary Studios May 6th 7pm - 10.00pm
458 Hackney Rd, London E2 9EG. Entrance is free.
The event will feature:
Noah Hutton & Ben Ehrlich: founders of The Beautiful Brain, a website that explores the juncture between neuroscience and art, based in New York. They will present on the theme of discontinuity in neurobiological, cultural, and linguistic systems. As well as discussing The Beautiful Brain, Noah will show a brief clip from his most recent documentary film Deep Time (SXSW 2015) and Ben will share from his research about the life and work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, "the father of modern neuroscience."
Harry Man: will lead an artistic examination into dyslexia and its potential advantages including identifying black holes and visualized data based on research by Dr Matthew H. Schneps at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. Using gravitational wave detection data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) collaboration, Harry hopes to illustrate how dyslexia might be an advantage to those studying the origin of the universe.
Malinda J. McPherson: a neuroscientist and musician who studies the link between emotion and musical creativity. Malinda will be discussing the human ability to ascribe meaning to sound, as well as the connections between abnormal brain states and creative musical expression.
Nick Ryan: a multi award winning composer, sound designer, artist and audio specialist, widely recognised as a leading thinker on the application of emerging and future technologies to the creation and performance of sound and music.
Lotje Sodderland: artist, writer & filmmaker, who present framed artworks created after she lost the ability to communicate with words, exhibited in Apiary Studios. An excerpt from her documentary My Beautiful Broken Brain will also be screened as part of the evening's program.
a World without Words will present further events in June, August, October & December, with more details to come.
The project is generously supported by Arts Council England

Rebecca Kamen - Building New Bridges Between Art and Neuroscience

Building New Bridges Between Art and Neuroscience

It’s been extremely busy since returning from the Salzburg Seminar building new
bridges between various art and neuroscience communities. Several dialogues
seeded at the Seminar are developing into exciting collaborative projects, which
will be shared as they develop further in future blog entries.

The following are some current and upcoming art and neuroscience activities that
have occurred since returning from the Salzburg:

I have just returned from presenting a lecture on Art and Neuroscience, at the Art
Center in Sun Valley, Idaho. The lecture was in conjunction with a current art
exhibition at the Art Center titled The Brain, featuring some of my work inspired
by neuroscience. Here is a link:

Another art / neuroscience lecture will be presented in May at the Marine
Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Some other exciting news to share, Noah Hutton's and my work is featured in a
recent article title: Cerebral Reverberations in SciArt in America Magazine. Here
is a link:

Finally, early this month a NINDS (National Institute of Neurological Disorders
and Stroke) Group Merit Award was received for my contribution to the current
Santiago Ramon y Cajal exhibition at National Institutes of Health. Here is the

"This group is recognized for its innovative collaboration bridging art and science
to create a gallery of original art celebrating neuroscience in the Porter
Neuroscience Research Center (PNRC). In addition to the Cajal exhibit, the
Atrium gallery includes original sculptures, by Rebecca Kamen, whose
enthusiasm and artistic vision inspired the exhibition and whose creative
sculpture graces the walls of the new PNRC…. There is great hope that the
cross-pollination within the Porter facility will encourage shifts in understanding
as radical as those introduced by Cajal, and that the artistic expression will help
scientists view their research through a new lens.”

You can find out more about the NINDS/NIH Cajal exhibition at: