Friday, January 2, 2009

Artistic creativity and the brain

I wrote a blog in May in which I discussed the improvisations of the jazz pianist, Tord Gustavsen. In it, I put forward the view that great artistic achievements must be free of all censorship, and above all self-censorship which, I imagined, may possibly be imposed by activity in the frontal lobes of the brain. In this context, I was very interested to read about an imaginative experiment in a recent paper by Charles Limb and Allen Braun, published in PLoS One. They studied the activity in the brain of professional jazz pianists while they (the pianists) were improvising. There is much of interest in this paper, but here I concentrate on one result which I found especially exciting in view of what I said in my earlier blog. Limb and Braun found that there was extensive de-activation in the frontal cortex as well as in those areas of the brain that are thought to regulate emotions. The authors write that the frontal areas that were de-activated in their study are thought to be important for the conscious monitoring, evaluation and correction of behaviour:

“The [frontal cortex] may be involved in assessing whether such behaviors conform to social demands, exerting inhibitory control over inappropriate or maladaptive performance”

And there you have it!

Any artistic achievement that is tailored to conform to social demands rather than to the real, uninhibited, feelings of its creator, is destined not to reach the heights of achievement, or even fail. It is only when an artist is dis-inhibited that he or she can reach the heights of artistic achievement.

This is perhaps what Wagner and Schopenhauer meant when they said, in a somewhat clumsy way, that an artistic work must “flow from the sub-conscious”, which I interpret to mean without self-censorship. This is perhaps what Proust also meant when he wrote in his Contre Sainte Beuve, “Every day, I become more aware that it is only outside [intelligence] that the [artist] can attain something of himself and the only material of art” (see my earlier blog).

It is at any rate wonderful to have in this recent work a neurological insight into a prized characteristic of all art, but especially of jazz and dancing.


Jade Booth said...

Yeah I think your right, thank you for sharing. Raw untainted human expression definitely provides something more substantial. However what is produced from it doesn't always seem to fit with the problem/goal/question (I guess this could be taken to mean the goal was non-optimal)

Ben said...

I think it is also important to realise that the de-activation of the frontal-cortex must be in the wider context of a high-functioning frontal-cortex; in order to apply the goal-driven behaviour and discipline that builds up procedural skills encapsulated in the rest of the cortex and cerebellum. Without practice and such procedural skills (or even simply the driven-effort required to show others) the artistic work would typically be of little artistic merit.

robertstasinski said...

Interesting piece of research, I have a few comments on my blog about this paper

Tom said...

I wonder if athletes "in the zone" demonstrate similar patterns?

Also, at the risk of nitpicking, I wanted to point out a terminology error in some of your posts. A blog (named for "web log") is an ongoing record of individual posts, in the same way a data log is a record of individual data. In other words,"Prof Zeki's Musings" is a blog, and "Artistic creativity and the brain" is a post. In the opening sentence of this post, I expect you mean that you "wrote a post in May", not "a blog in May."

Art Group at Berkeley said...

From a harvard neuroscience student and artist ~ =

yes, when I'm running against the other girls, against the wind, I know that when I'm 'in the zone' I will win, without pain without difficulty, . . . I seek the dreamy bright shimmering zone, colored on the edge of sky and fresh cut lavendar. It is the same when drawing or painting. Sometimes, in the right place or time, Zoning is like meditation, the tickly, happy copper smell where I create most effortlessly, enlightening myself and others who will see the blue smooth of it as I imagined as the brush dipped itself and sparkled across the cold-pressed canvas on it's own.

Professor Zeki,

Like Werner, I think that being more open about such matters might help us. I suppose I am also a 'neuroesthetic' in some sense, the only artist allowed in this small program here. They can't keep me from sketching. I draw everything I see. Yesterday I drew Gardner and his wife talking about creativity and thought. Today I argued with the doctoral student who thinks all art is a sign of illness, or sadness. Poor fellow. I think he missed the inaugural concert for sure.

Saying "maybe" or "perhaps" might be better for us to do than making final judgments about how an artist's brian works. There are so many kinds of artists and art, requiring so many parts of the brain to create. Some art uses all of the brain - like cooking. Cooking activates more parts of the brain then almost any human activity.

I did see several brain scans here of practising artists that show frontal lobe activation while they were creating their art. The fascinating feature about this is that it is the right frontal lobe activation! This is shown in very skilled artists but not in unskilled artists doing the same creative work. There are some publications that you should check out which support this as well. I think, since we are just now forming this field, we should be open-minded, like the classical Werner, an amazing observationist who accurately assumed (quite a bit of) potential functionality of the brain before it was technically possible. His style of writing is so beautiful, not because he writes like a poet, but because he writes with 'possibility.' Our theories must always be changing, evolving and correcting ourselves, the possibility of the unknown open to wonder.

After years of art school and years of making art with hundreds of artists worldwide, I am now a neuroscientist studying the cutting edge of this miraculously new and discoverable field. Humble in amazement, I know that most art (as my fellow artists say and show and live) is made of and out of joy. How to explain this to the scientists and educators around me? I seek to find a way to wipe the dust from their minds. To put artists in a box, to say that we are all sad or somewhat schizotypal is really narrowminded. You say,... (I said to the school) it is mad to live within a dream? Well, then I say to you, .... it is insane to live without one!

Remember this my fellows, . . .

If de-activating the front means I'm free, then it explains why artists are considered 'those who have freedom' in society, through their creative work. To be free, the 'rulemakers' leave their orderly boxes and seek the colorful neighborhood of artists and musicians, free for a moment, free until return to the drudgery of control and the sad pursuit of monetary gain. And then, to see those who seek this freedom, can this 'art' work be called work after considering it's liberation? Then we must then not eliminate the thought that artists liberate society from constraint. And let us not forget the individual observer who owns the linear, rational,sequential mind, a mind so frequently active in the left frontal lobe, he hurts from the restraints of it. Wanders he, accidentally into the corridors of a random gallery, fully taking in a synaestheiast's purely joyful, ethereal and unrestrained expression of release. After standing, trancelike, without fully conscious of his doing so, mesmerizingly takes in the fullness and depth of such a vision, he is temporary healed. For a few moments afterwards, he can "think out of the box," he has the innovative solution to the problem at work, and the romantic understanding of how to impulsively seduce his wife for the first time in years. He is 'unburdened' by the experience of art.

This is the true actualization of an artist's dream. Only a thouand words can express an artists' vision painted with reverence. When I write "vision" I mean 'what the artist feels when painting, which is what they want to share with the viewer.'

or, . . .

"I personally should like to renounce speech altogether and . . . communicate everything I have to say in sketches ________________________________ Goethe, quoted from Huxley 1957: 58 f.

or better yet, . . .

"There are no untalented artists, there are only untalented observers" ____________________________ Shemshurin in 1920, quoted from Lodder 1983: 80

.....................sunshine shimmering gold colorful secrets of synaesthesian painters . . . . know, that - some see art, but do not EXPERIENCE art. . . . . . . There are a thousand colors of green she said. . . . . . dancing, . . . . . . . deep jazzy rain feels yellow and blue . i paint because ........ it's not about me, it's all about you.

Halewyn said...

It would be not only interesting - but necessary- to state (from a scientific point of view) the difference between:

1) Self-censorship in relation to oneself: The "This is really what I want?" idea.

2) Self-censorship in relation to the others: The "What will they say?" idea

It's my hope Neuroesthetics field will make interesting discoveries in the near future, because all what we have is essentially the perception of ourselves in opposition to the perception of the others.. or what some call the "inner" and the "outer" world.

mcguire said...

Regarding this musing by Professor Zeki and the later exuberant comments by "The Art Group at Berkeley" and Halewyn's address of censorship:

In one hour, I will be attending a lecture here at Harvard's Mind, Brain, Behavior tea led by Herbert H. Clark, PhD Professor of Psychology Stanford University - where he will discuss with us this very domain. The abstract for his talk is as follows:

"Ordinary language use is far from the ideal characterized in standard theories of grammar, pragmatics, and communication. People in conversation decide what to say not alone, but in collaboration with their interlocutors. They are constantly changing course as they speak, often mid-sentence. When they misestimate (well, George W. Bush misunderestimates) what their interlocutors know, they have techniques for dealing with the consequences. And in speaking, they
hesitate, add uh and um, repeat words, redo phrases, and abandon phrases, all in great numbers. According to traditional theories, all of these behaviors are
irrational aberrations from the ideal. But are they? In the traditional theories, people using language are assumed to have omniscient rationality. What if they were assumed to have bounded rationality based on limited knowledge and limited processing capacity? I will lay out a model of language use based on bounded rationality and show that it accounts for many of these “aberrant” behaviors as fully rational."

Aaahhhh.... how interesting. And it so reminds me of today's early morning lecture by Professor Kurt Fischer (always interrupted by James Croft of course) discussing the matters of how advances in brain cognition and development typically follow a regress/progress kind of S loop of sorts.

So, in essence, we all should keep our eye on the ones (the thoughts, the people) that are in tangents, wavering between intangible and within our grasp, for those are the ones that shall bear innovative fruit.

Sheila Heti said...

This study talks about the brain of musicians improvising. But there is also the editing or selection part of art, where the artist stands back, looks at what they have done, and evaluates it. A writer reads over what they have written in a state of, say, improvisation, and then edits it, improves upon it, layers in other ideas, and fixes it to conscious standards. What part of the brain is engaged when the artist performs this part of the labour? Surely this part of the labour -- call it logical, evaluating -- call it skill, craft -- is as important as the primary "ecstatic" impulse, and should be studied as well. What part of the brain does it come from? For the creation of art really comes in two parts: the "free," let's call it, but also the part which evaluates that freedom by the artist's own standards.

Adeline said...

There are some publications that you should check out which support this as well. I think, since we are just now forming this field, we should be open-minded, like the classical Werner, an amazing observationist who accurately assumed (quite a bit of) potential functionality of the brain before it was technically possible.
Brainhealthandpuzzles - brain creativity

ikhoo said...

I am an art student researching on Colours, Light and Perception.

I read in a book about the fear of colours.

'colours are associated with primitivism, infantilism and is something foreign to the the intellect.
Colours are associated with the feminine and are secondary and superfluous.

My 'silly' question which I would like to ask is
Do we need intellect to perceive colours?

Which part of the brain are we using as artists when we decide/feel like placing shocking pink next to shocking green for instant?

Thank you for answering my questions.

Professor Zeki said...

Thanks for your question. The simple answer to the first part is "No, we do not need intellect to perceive colours". The more sophisticated answer is that colour is a wholly subjective experience but a subjective experience in which a brain programme comes into operation to determine the colours that we see. Hence it is not in our power to choose which colours we see.

The situation is different when we come to choose what colour to put next to another colour. Surely memory and intellect come into play then. S Zeki

Nicholas Stangherlin said...

Dear all,
I am a PhD student of literature and have only recently become acquainted with the fascinating field of Neuroesthetics. I would like to ask the readers of this blog if they know of any interesting papers, articles or books that deal with olfactory data within a diegesis and how that data is processed at a neurological level by the reader. My hypothesis –which I hope to confirm or disconfirm– is that olfactory data is often more effective and more reliable in eliciting a response than visual or auditory data and that the memory of said data is less subject to re-elaboration over time. In summation, I am trying to find empirical evidence of the evocative power of olfactory data in literature which goes beyond the tradition of Proust’s madeleines and which is more reader-oriented.

Please excuse the approximative nature of this post and thank you all in advance.