The Neuroscience of Aesthetics
Artists and perceptual researchers start a conversation on what they can learn from one another


by Nicky Penttila

October 26, 2010

A confluence of scientists, fine artists, and plain folk curious about how art expresses itself in the brain challenged one another to find the answers during a recent conference in Baltimore.

"We won't give you answers, we'll give you questions" that might lead to eventual understanding, said John Griffin, director of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s Brain Science Institute, which organized the events.

The two-day speaker series, "The Science of the Arts: Perceptual Neuroscience and Aesthetics," included conversations with seven panels of researchers, architects, choreographers, painters, musicians, and composers. The close of the first day, held at the American Visionary Art Museum, included a tour of the museum's new exhibit, "What Makes us Smile?" Events on the second day were held at the Baltimore Museum of Art; earlier this year the Walters Art Museum played host to an interactive neuroscience research project called "Beauty and the Brain" (see our review).

While "neuroaesthetics" may be a new discipline, the scientists reported, we do know some things about perception, such as what parts of the brain respond to pleasure and that our sensory input is "pixellated" rather than the steady stream it feels like in the moment. Panelists spoke of the science behind visual arts, dance, architecture, sculpture, and, especially, music.

"My goal as a jazz guy is to represent ideas in a coherant, hopefully clear way that is manifested into sound," said guitarist and composer Pat Metheny. "The best musicians are good listeners."

"And the best conversationalists are good listeners, too," echoed his fellow panelist, Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Starting the conversation

The neuroscience of music has a relatively rich history, at least in hearing and the mental processing of sound. Only recently, though, have the mental processes involved in producing music been studied. Dana grantee Charles Limb, a neurosurgeon at Hopkins and a professor at Hopkins's Peabody Institute of Music, is trying to trace the changes in the brain as trained musicians improvise.

Limb described a series of experiments he ran in 2008 of jazz musicians improvising on a specially designed keyboard while undergoing fMRI brain scanning. Activity in a broad patch of the frontal cortex, thought to be controlling self-monitoring and self-inhibition, went down, while that of a tighter patch, thought of as an autobiographical area, went up. "That's a very tidy way to frame something [musical expression] that isn't tidy at all," he said. (See details in the post, "Music and the Brain.")

"Artistic creativity is a neurologic product that can be examined using scientific methods," Limb said. “The question is: Is it truly possible to study creativity scientifically, and if it is, why should scientists study it?" His answer is yes to both.

One of the cornerstones of human progress is innovation, Limb argued, in arts, business, and society. If we understood how to "create" creativity, we might teach others to take better advantage of it. "We don't know how these 'eureka' moments happen, and that's why we should study it."

Limb's current experiment tests the reactions of musicians in collaboration. Two pianists "trade fours:" one plays four bars of improvisation based on a standard jazz pattern, then the other plays four bars, back and forth. One player lies in the fMRI scanner, the other sits in the control room, so their only interaction is via the music in their earphones. In very early results, with just a few pairs studied so far, Limb said, it looks like the process activates a part of the brain called Broca's area, long connected to the production of speech and language.

Now Limb is recruiting hip-hop "freestylers," who can riff on language in ways that seem a lot like musical improvisation, to see if their brains make the same sort of patterns when they create.

Building the vocabulary

Another similarity to language is the fact that it's hard to let loose creatively without knowing the basic vocabulary of the medium, be it color, light, muscle and joint extension, dimensional space, or notes on a guitar.

Many of the artists described being "in the zone," when their work seemed to flow, but "you can't be in the zone without having the vocabulary to be in the zone," said Alsop. "You have to make an enormous effort in order to be free."

Bass guitarist and electronics designer Michael Pope agreed. "I can't emote or create my way to playing really well—I have to play well" first to tap into and communicate the emotion and creativity he wants to express. Pope, who has toured with Chick Corea, Al Dimeola, and other jazz greats, is also a volunteer test subject for Limb's research.

Much of art, as other parts of life, is practice and perseverance. Alsop, Metheny, and Pope started playing music as young children, but all three started on an instrument that they did not succeed at. Metheny's family has three generations of professional level trumpet players; Alsop tried piano before switching to violin.

"There's so much intrinsic value in learning to play an instrument," Alsop said, "and in this emotional battle of not being able to conquer something and accepting that you can't conquer it and keeping going on. It opens your mind to your value, your inner creation, your inner value."

"Maybe we can't teach people to get into the zone," said Pope, "but we can teach them to be mindul and not discount those fleeting feelings, and know you can call them back." As for calling up creativity once you have the tools, he quoted Metheney on sitting at the piano keyboard until the music starts to come to him: "If you want to catch the bus, you have to be at the bus stop."

Whole-body experience

"Music provides us with a particularly powerful tool to learn about the brain, because it encompasses so much complexity," said neuropsychologist Robert Zatorre of McGill University. For example, people who wear high-tech cochlear implants, which help them hear speech distinctly over instruments like the telephone, cannot even tell when a sound is music; to most, it sounds like the rushing of air before a subway car arrives.

And when you take in music, it's not just the auditory system that responds, but also the motor system. Inside your brain, "you're not only hearing the sounds, but modeling the actions" of the performer, Zatorre said, somehow getting in synch with the performer and the composer.

And somehow imbibing their story, said renowned pianist, composer, and teacher Leon Fleisher. "What one is expressing in music is not so much the notes, but the implication of the notes as they are combined. What one thinks the music is saying, one lives that internally very, very powerfully."

More than two dozen other speakers also shared what they know of choreography, architecture, painting, sculpture, design, and brain science during the sessions, and the audience of around 370 contributed lively questions. The sessions were recorded, and will appear in a few weeks on the Brain Science Institute site.

"We have a great need for research on things that affect people," from dressing well to falling in love, said Semir Zeki, professor of neuroesthetics at the University of London and a pioneer of the discipline. The 70-year-old called the conference a great success: "It has generated in me 25 years' worth of research."

Zeki describes artists as "instinctive neuroscientists," and painter William Stoehr's description of his method seemed to make his point. "I work through experiments, mistakes, accidents, and observations," Stoehr said. "I don't know why some art elicits an emotional response, I just know that it does."

"A lot of the process in art is very similar in science, and vice versa. We all strive to break the mold," said cognitive scientist Barbara Landau. This meeting was a chance to show "we're not so different, after all."