Interview with Kelsey Graywill
By Srinjoyi Lahiri
Srin Lahiri: Tell us a little about yourself! (your work, your inspirations, your motivations, your beginnings with art or science, etc.)
Kelsey Graywill: Well, I am Kelsey; I’m an artist, scientist, and entrepreneur currently based in London, England. It’s always hard for me to introduce myself with traditionally-defined occupations because truly what I do represents a marriage of multiple disciplines. I’m currently pursuing my Master’s of Science in neuroaesthetics, but my intention has always been to become a physician.
My parents are my original inspirations: my mother is an artist and my father is a computer technician. The walls of my childhood home were lined with my mother’s artwork and the computer motherboards my father would disassemble (my mother was very accepting of his decorative choices), so in a literal sense I grew up between those gaps, from a young age trying to reconcile those aspects of myself. I was always very creative, I really liked making things, was fascinated with many things, and had more ideas than I knew what to do with. So I was constantly fighting against systems that told me to pick one thing, to specialize in one area, else be branded “jack of all trades, master of none.”
I was really inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the most loved and famous artist-scientist in history. Growing up, I devoured the works of Oliver Sacks, who was a wickedly talented writer and gifted neurologist – he showed me that it was possible to be an artist-scientist in the modern world. Later, during university, when I was training to be become an EMT, we had a workshop crafting splints with very basic materials. I put together a very unconventional, angulated knee splint (aiming to preserve the genicular arteries) that my instructor praised, saying “That’s creativity. I can’t teach that.” I think it was the first time in my life I felt genuinely validated as a creative in a scientific field. I have continued to run with it.
SL: Are there any life experiences that led you to create a personal connection with the field of neuroaesthetics?
KG: My life’s intellectual work is dedicated to understanding what it means to be human. I see the human condition as equal parts beauty and suffering, two sides of the same coin, and this is what I wanted to explore when I entered university. Imagine my poor first-year university advisor trying to help me pick a major! This actually led to me creating my own major, a pathway Duke University offers to a handful of undergraduate students each year who develop a coherent, justifiable degree program outside what already exists. I proposed a degree called “Human Creativity: Evolutionary Neuroaesthetics” which blended coursework spanning 13 different departments, especially neuroscience, linguistics, visual arts, evolutionary anthropology, biology, music, and philosophy. Although it was difficult to gain institutional approval for it, it is one of the single most rewarding experiences of my education. Neuroaesthetics, for me, was the only discipline that could give me the proper framework and theory for the kind of inquiry I was interested in. At its core, I believe neuroaesthetics is about understanding what gives things meaning – what makes a simple combination of sounds moving, or an image made of up of forms and colors awe-inspiring. It asks us to consider how our memories, biology, environment, and individual tastes give significance to all the meaningless things in the world around us, and how, in turn, those once meaningless things make life worth living. To me, there is no more interesting and compelling topic to pursue as a scholar.
SL: What are your thoughts on the intersections of art and neuroscience?
KG: Much the same way that every brain is unique, so too are our tastes in art! People prefer and experience art, music, dance, and literature differently, but aesthetic appreciation is so important to humans that we’ve been doing it since we were cavemen drawing on cave walls, before we even had formal language. It’s difficult to uncover the “why” of art in human history because we can’t go back in time to study the origins of art or aesthetics. Neuroscience gives us the tools to understand the “how” – to examine the behavior and biology that governs the way we engage with and respond to art in all its forms. Neuroscience and art are both different ways of understanding ourselves and our world, using both in tandem widens our scope.
My pursuit of neuroscience and art has opened doors to even more interdisciplinary work! My interest in using art to communicate science led to my involvement in the graphic medicine community, where I regularly hold classes on how we can use comics to distill complicated dynamics between patients, providers, and health systems into consumable stories. I did an art residency last year called Art in a New Dimension where I created 3D printed models of my own artwork in a showcase that explored how immersion impacts our experience of art. After I graduated university, I successfully launched a Kickstarter for a series of coloring books I created to help people with neurological disorders, promote health literacy, and teach foreign languages. All of these things were fundamentally related the intersection of human behavior and art – it has so many applications.
SL: How did you formulate your vision for your "Makings of A Mind" gallery? What was the story behind it? What kinds of work did you have to do behind the scenes to bring it to life?
KG: Makings of a Mind was my senior capstone at Duke, which is traditionally a written thesis, but I wanted to do something that was scientifically sound but still resonant with the average person. I spent a semester researching the cognitive and evolutionary origins of aesthetic appreciation, which informed the eventual curation of the gallery. For the pieces in the gallery, I decided to use my own landscape paintings as a way to illuminate different paradigms of aesthetic appreciation, like a case study. Nature and landscapes are among the oldest and most well-known subjects of paintings – even people without an interest in visual art are familiar with Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Monet’s Water Lilies.
The whole process of curating forced me to look at my artwork in ways I have never have before. I had to figure out how to use the colors, forms, and compositions of my works to illustrate different aspects of the research I’d done in a way that was still digestible for viewers and helped them understand why they respond the way they do to different pieces. I’ve learned that we tend to retain information well when we engage our senses, so I wanted the gallery to be multi-modal and interactive. I wanted viewers to see, but also to touch and move things around, to feel like they had a sense of autonomy in the space and weren’t just being mindlessly guided by walls of text. Sections of the gallery focused on different aspects of neuroaesthetics: evolution and affective responses to art, art and imitation, the emergence of symbolic thinking and patterns. For example, a popular theory in academia about human color preferences is the Ecological Valence Theory, which basically describes how our emotional responses to objects in our environment reflect our existing color-associations. I didn’t want to bog viewers down with this kind of jargon, so instead I showed them paintings of flourishing green fields with blue skies that evoked feelings of safety, fertility – not because we can sense the exact acidity of the ground or purity of the air, but because of colors we associate with certain environments. Viewers could examine artworks and actually place their emotional responses on a blank graph affixed to the wall, which filled up with everyone’s individual responses, a collective way to situate our individual tastes. Each interactive component in the gallery gave viewers a chance to think about their responses to the artwork in a different way.
I believe that if we pay more attention to how our biases, environments, and tastes impacted our responses to the visual world, we’d be much better off as a society. I didn’t create the gallery to convince every viewer that strolled in to look at pretty paintings that they needed to be educated on neuroaesthetics specifically. My goal was that they might leave a bit more mindful of or curious about the way they look at things.
SL: Tell us a little about your current dissertation and how our community can contribute!
KG: I can’t say too much without spoiling it! I was inspired by Aristotle’s Paradox of Tragic Pleasure, which is part of an ongoing philosophical discussion about why we enjoy art with a negative valence – listening to sad music, watching horror movies in the middle of the night, etc. I decided I wanted to explore perceptions of pain, images, and liking, especially what features of an image can confer pain which may or may not be the source pain itself. Experiencing pain and being a spectator to it are regular parts of our lives, so I believe it is a worthwhile subject to study.
The study is called The Visual Language of Pain and it is Covid-19 friendly, so you can participate from anywhere in the world on any device (though I recommend a laptop)! You can find the survey at: bit.ly/visualpain Many thanks to anyone who participates! Make sure to drop your email at the end of the survey if you are interested in seeing my findings later when I put them online.
SL: What is one thing people don't know about neuroaesthetics?
KG: There is a general sentiment that neuroaesthetics is some newfangled science – it’s true it has only emerged into its own within the last couple decades – but it’s really very closely related to empirical aesthetics, a psychological discipline that has been around since the mid 20th century!
SL: Why do you believe interdisciplinary study/exploration is valuable?
KG: The neat boundaries we have tucked modern disciplines into are what make sense to us, they are familiar, but even the field of neuroscience did not exist a century ago. Disciplines as they exist are constructs and inquiry existing outside those definitions is no less valuable – interdisciplinary work brings new perspectives and ways of thinking. From a purely utilitarian perspective, being able to innovate across conventional disciplinary boundaries is a great asset: to be a product designer who understands engineering, or an economist who understands behavior – the list is endless! Being able to look at the world from multiple different perspectives has allowed me to grow and better myself in my career and in my personal life.
SL: What tips would you give those aspiring to explore the field of neuroaesthetics?
KG: Take advantage of this emergent time for neuroaesthetics! Usually if I connect with someone else in neuroaesthetics, they are A) working on something really ridiculously cool and B) so excited to meet someone else who knows what the word neuroaesthetics means without having to explain it. If you’re exploring neuroaesthetics, you are lucky to have found a community that is eager to connect and has an amazing, growing body of scientific and artistic work.