Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Noah Hutton - 3 Questions for Connecting Art and Neuroscience

3 Questions for Connecting Art and Neuroscience 

When we say we want to connect neuroscience and art, I think we mean more generally that we want to reconcile the objective with the intuitive. This reconciliation—or what E.O. Wilson called “consilience”—can take myriad forms in childhood arts education, lifelong learning, fine art, or empirical studies of creativity and perception. But there are easy reconciliations, and more difficult and undefined ones. I believe the key to breaking new ground in this dialogue between the objective and the intuitive is to avoid two easy routes: first, treating neuroscience solely as the objective metric of the intuitively already-known, and second, treating neuroscience as the ultimate end-domain for objective answers to mysterious unknowns. Instead, I think we ought to turn to the layered architecture of the brain itself for guidance. To achieve its interdisciplinary best, I like to think of neuroscience as a layer that slides into the conversation or into the creative act, deepening our experience and fundamentally altering anything that is made or discussed in its context, merely by its presence as an ontological lens through which things must pass. Creativity comes from mysterious places, and flows through many layers within us before anything takes form outside of us. I think neuroscience can help form another of those layers—it can penetrate into the murky realms of the intuitive—and before long, as a society, we may start to view questions of identity, reality, and memory through new eyes.

In my own work, I recently created a multiplatform project for the Times Square Arts Alliance in New York City called “Brain City,” which featured a 3-minute video that immersed viewers in the latest visuals of brain structures from leading neuroscience projects around the world, playing simultaneously on twenty billboard displays in Times Square at midnight each night for a month. There were also printed banners on the street that drew analogies between urban landscapes and neural ones, and a playful website that connects sites around NYC to analogous brain locations and functions ( This spring I am collaborating with neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux of NYU to create a short fictional film based on his upcoming book, Anxious, which investigates his pioneering work on the neuroscience of emotion. 

In these projects and in any future collaborations that attempt to connect art and neuroscience, my practice will keep a few questions in mind:

  • Has this project meaningfully passed through a layer of neuroscience?
  • Are the necessary tools for engagement embedded in the message or the medium of the project itself?
  • How will the interdisciplinarity of the project yield something that is new, and not just new for new’s sake?

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