SINAPSIS: Exploring the connections between art and the brain
by Fernanda Pérez-Gay Juárez
How old were you when you first had to choose whether you preferred the arts or the sciences? I was 16 years old. When I was in high school, I thought I would study literature. I loved to write short stories and poems, I was in charge of the school literary magazine and I read fiction with an assiduousness which I was not able to keep later in life. Two years before entering college, inspired by Matt Ridley's book The Human Genome, I was drawn to the natural sciences. Finally, in my last year of highschool, I had to choose, as was the rule at that time, between four areas of study: 1. Physics and Mathematics; 2. Chemistry and Biology; 3. Social sciences or 4. Arts and Humanities. Still ambivalent, I decided to go for number 2.
I remember the last day of highschool, when one of my classmates wrote in my yearbook: "I wish you had devoted yourself to literature instead of turning into Mostro ("Monster", the nickname of our biology professor). I also remember that, from this moment on, I began to hear the distinction “you the scientists, we the artists”. As if the answer to the absurd and complex question “science or art?” was already final. Without any possibility of going back.
The physicist and novelist C, P. Snow addressed this divide between two worlds in a famous conference in Cambridge, in 1959: "Art and science: the two cultures". He was worried that Western society was splitting between two intellectual groups that had ceased to communicate. Today's education systems keep asking us to make this choice at a very young age. And, as soon as we decide to dip our feet in one or the other world, we gradually have less and less time and less opportunities to cross over to the other side, limiting our possibilities for exchanges and multidisciplinary work.
In this paradigm of strictly divided disciplines, we are losing opportunities to exchange perspectives. For C.P. Snow, this partition is one of the main barriers to solving global problems. The question then is: Beyond the lack of understanding between these two groups of thinkers with distinct methods, which are the obstacles to develop multidisciplinary knowledge? Regarding C. P. Snow's lecture, Nobel Prize winner Erick Kandel said in 2011(1):
"C.P Snow spoke about the divide between the humanists and the scientists. Everybody can read Shakespeare, so the scientists can be literate to some degree, but the humanists do not have access to science, and we need to change that. One way to do this is to find areas of common interest and to start a dialogue between us. This is a fantastic time to do this"
This renowned neuroscientist believes that one of the major setbacks for interdisciplinary dialogue is the difficulty for the public to access scientific content. Scientific articles are riddled with jargon, complex statistical analyses and graphs that are far from intuitive for the naïve reader. Most of its content is thus incomprehensible to those who do not belong to the field of study in question. This may even include other scientists, who have difficulty understanding papers that deviate from their sub-field of expertise. Therefore, scientific communication plays an essential role not only in disseminating knowledge, but also in erasing the imaginary boundaries between disciplines.
Cognitive neuroscience is an interesting entry point to intertwine both science and arts, for its goal is to explain the biological bases of mental processes, some of which underlie artistic creation and appreciation. The development of functional neuroimaging techniques, which allow to measure a brain activity while a subject performs a task, has allowed researchers to merge psychology and neurobiology. This marriage gave birth to neuroaesthetics, which is concerned with the biological bases of artistic experience.
However, as this field advances, many artists remain unaware of the research neuroscientists do on artistic processes, mainly because their methods are complex and the studies inaccessible to a non-specialized public.
In a famous thought experiment, Frank Jackson invites us to imagine a neuroscientist, called Mary, who studies vision in an entirely black and white laboratory. When it comes to color vision, Mary knows everything that is going on in the eye: how cells in the retina respond to different wavelengths, how they communicate with each other in the brain’s cortex, the processes through which we colors and the emotions that colors elicit in us. But Mary has never left her black and white laboratory, and therefore has never experienced the color red herself. What would Mary learn if she came out of her lab to see the world in its true colors? This is a great analogy of what happens to scientists who study art from a physical and biological point of view. Yes, we may be able to measure patterns of brain activity when, for example, a dancer performs a pirouette, but what can a scientist who has never danced teach dancers about their art? From my point of view, the neuroscience of art will not move in the right direction if it does not include the artist's perspective.
Born in Mexico with the support of the Art, Sciences and Technologies program of the Council for the Arts, SINAPSIS, Connections between art and your brain seeks to open a dialogue between artists and scientists by popularizing the cognitive neuroscience of artistic processes.
Opening communication channels between these two streams of knowledge is essential not only to understand human psychology, but also to emphasize the role that the arts can play in promoting well-being, and even in developing new therapeutic approaches. This project does not aim to explain art to the artist at all. On the contrary. In many cases, art has much more to teach us about how the brain works than neuroscience can teach us about artistic processes. As Semir Zeki, one of the pioneers of neuroaesthetics, said: “Artists are in a sense neuroscientists, exploring common questions about the brain with their own methods. "
In fact, art and neuroscience offer complementary perspectives on the human mind. Art gives us valuable information about our mental and emotional life: personal intimate, sometimes indescribable experiences, impossible to measure objectively; and neuroscience allow us to explore the biological bases of creative thinking, memory, empathy, perception and emotion, processes that not only underpin our relationship to art, but that also make us human. In collaboration with the Centre de Recherche en Éthique and the Convergence initiative, SINAPSIS is now adding to the discussion the perspective of moral psychology and ethics of well-being.
In recent years, different lines of scientific research have demonstrated the importance of the arts for the benefit of mental health, human dignity and well-being. In addition to the growing number of clues about the benefits of playing and listening to music (2,3), various studies have pointed out, for example, that individuals who regularly read fiction have a better capacity for empathy than those who do not (4–6), while other researchers have shown the capacity of dance to improve interoception (7) (the sense through which we feel what's going on inside our bodies), which in turn is intrinsically tied to emotional processing and the development of our self-concept (8–10). These are just a few of the many examples of scientific research that support the transformative power of artistic practices.
Through sharing some of the latest scientific studies demonstrating the capacity of the arts to produce affective and cognitive states that play a central role in our lives SINAPSIS invites us to reflect on how artistic practices (creation or appreciation) can help us in our quest for mental health and happiness.
The exchange has only started, and it looks promising. SINAPSIS, the Centre de Recherche en Éthique and the Convergence Initiative invite you to join this journey to explore the connections between art, brain and well-being through a series of science communication videos and essays on six topics: creativity, painting, literature, music, dance and cinema. To go further, we will host three scientific cafés with exchanges between ethicists, neuroscientists and artists. You are all invited!
References 1. A Conversation With Eric Kandel - YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuZjOwd7HLk&ab_channel=ColumbiaNews. (Accessed: 30th September 2020) 2. Herholz, S. C. & Zatorre, R. J. Musical Training as a Framework for Brain Plasticity: Behavior, Function, and Structure. Neuron 76, 486–502 (2012). 3. Macdonald, R. A. R. Music, health, and well-being: A review. Int. J. Qual. Stud. Health Well-being 8, (2013). 4. Djikic, M., Oatley, K. & Moldoveanu, M. C. Reading other minds: Effects of literature on empathy. Sci. Study Lit. 3, 28–47 (2013). 5. Oatley, K. Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 20, 618–628 (2016). 6. Kidd, D. & Castano, E. Reading Literary Fiction and Theory of Mind: Three Preregistered Replications and Extensions of Kidd and Castano (2013). Soc. Psychol. Personal. Sci. 10, 522–531 (2019). 7. Christensen, J. F., Gaigg, S. B. & Calvo-Merino, B. I can feel my heartbeat: Dancers have increased interoceptive accuracy. Psychophysiology 55, (2018). 8. Hindi, F. S. How Attention to Interoception Can Inform Dance/Movement Therapy. Am. J. Danc. Ther. 34, 129–140 (2012). 9. Hanley, A. W., Mehling, W. E. & Garland, E. L. Holding the body in mind: Interoceptive awareness, dispositional mindfulness and psychological well-being. J. Psychosom. Res. 99, 13–20 (2017). 10. Price, C. J. & Hooven, C. Interoceptive awareness skills for emotion regulation: Theory and approach of mindful awareness in body-oriented therapy (MABT). Front. Psychol. 9, (2018).