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.

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