Friday, March 20, 2015

Alina Von Davier - Neuroscience, Art, and Measurement

A few weeks after the immersive intellectual and cultural experience at the Salzburg Global Seminar, I find myself looking at my work differently. It is as if I got an additional pair of eyes that give me a different insight in the world around me.

I am writing today to share with you the points of connection to your work that I identified and on which I worked far.It is astonishing how many possibilities I found, despite the fact that I am neither a neuroscientist nor an artist. I guess I was the lucky sponge amidst the highly-strung creative folks that you are.

Anyway, here are my "news." 

1. Together with a group of brilliant individuals (psychologists, neuroscientists), yesterday I submitted a proposal on the measurement of individuals and teams processes using neurodata, multimodal data (eye-tracking, face-tracking, body language), behavior and cognitive data. This proposal was planned before the Salzburg seminar, but working on it after the seminar made quite a difference to me.

2. Together with two other researchers I've been working on a book chapter on the issues related to the assessment of language and educational competencies of second-language learners. After the seminar, I realized that I can include a perspective from neuroscience and I reached out to you. Manuela Macedonia and Siyuan Liu sent me helpful references. Thank you! Now, our chapter in an assessment book will have references to neuroscience. Who knows whom it will inspire?

3. I am planing to visit Siyuan Liu's lab in DC. We are actually planning it. Maybe one of my data scientists will go. I am interested in working with the neuroscientists on language assessments, using our language tests.

4. I am also happy for my new FB friends. Their posts give me new perspectives. 

5. I also have plans for reaching out to other participants. One step at a time.

Monday, March 16, 2015


Cartoon by KAL

Announcing... THE KAL PRIZE

The Goal: To encourage reflection, collaboration and action after Session 547: The Neuroscience of Art. In three months time we will ask for updates - What collaborations have occured? What new projects are are you working on or planning as a result of the conference? Have you developed any ways to engage with the public about art and neuroscience? 
The Prize: An original KAL drawing
The Date: Three months from the end of the conference (approximately)
The Judges: Members of the Public Engagement Focus Group

Ben Ehrlich - Definitions

Reading over my notes from the session, I remembered my criticism of the conference. When I say criticism, I am thinking of a book by George Steiner called Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, whose first line is: “Criticism should arise out of a debt of love.” I loved, and I owe. However, I have to report that at a conference called “Neuroscience and Art,” we never defined neuroscience or art.

I have Charles on the record saying that “creativity is simply the generation of something new.” At the time, I thought about Ecclesiastes, the Biblical wisdom text: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Also, isn’t every thought arising my head technically new? Charles also said, and I copied down, that art is “a homogenous form of total creativity.” If I have that wrong, please correct me immediately. I really appreciated that Charles would attempt to define his terms, but then these terms were never formally challenged, and so we could not have a debate. There were many implicit assumptions, which I will try to falsify here, at least enough to demonstrate a need for more work.

What is art? There is widespread disagreement about what constitutes art, even within the art world. We have the avant-garde, expanding the territory, not always earning recognition. How would we treat Duchamp’s “Fountain” or John Cage’s “4’33”, to name two important examples. There is also art brut, or outsider art, which can include work by psychiatric patients and children. Does intention matter? Or is the art the product? A masterpiece American poem, frequently taught to children in school, can also be described as a domestic apology note, written by a doctor. If you encountered William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say” on the refrigerator in the kitchen, would this be a poem? In an interview, William Faulkner once said that what the artist is trying to do is essentially scribble “Kilroy was here” on some wall. Would bathroom stall graffiti be considered art? Can we scan Kilroy’s brain? Most of Faulkner’s books were out of print during his lifetime. Was he still an artist when no one was reading his books, or did he only become an artist in 1949, when he won the Nobel Prize? What motivated the first cave drawings? Was that another Kilroy? Should we treat ancient Greek religious artifacts the same way as a giant Rothko canvas? The other day, I read about poets who use Google algorithms to completely determine their language. Scanning their brains would tell you nothing. Sometimes nobody creates a work of art, sometimes more than one person creates a work of art, and sometimes a robot can create art. You will probably disagree with a lot of these categorizations, which is exactly the point. We need aesthetic philosophy and critical theory. At least, we can’t pretend as though the work in those fields has not happened. or at least we can’t forget that these fields also exist and have contributed work. There are stakes when we say art.

What is neuroscience? At this point, I understand neuroscience to be an umbrella term for different ways of studying the brain. People have warned me not to call Santiago Ramón y Cajal “the father of neuroscience,” because he was only an anatomist, and there are other important branches (have a look at the Wikipedia list of “major branches” in the page on neuroscience). I used to know a neuroscientist who worked in the psychology department at a university, but who did not want me to call her a psychologist, because of the implications. Neuroscientists will say that there is “hard” and “soft” neuroscience. Incidentally, “soft” is the same term that one would use to insult an athletic opponent, in certain macho sports. Recently, a prominent cognitive neuroscientist was upset at his marginalized role within the Human Brain Project. Some neuroscientists do not respect the work of others. At a workshop, a theoretical neuroscientist once admitted that he wasn’t even sure that he believed in the efficacy of models! Is the neuroscientist who doesn’t think he is a neuroscientist a neuroscientist? Then there are computational neuroscientists, who speak in binary code. Obviously, that is not true, but their language is different. Neuroscience is less one than many. How would a molecular neurobiologist talk with a developmental neuropsychologist? Are artists and scientists always further apart than scientists and scientists? Here let me reveal that the term transient hypofrontality has been a resonant lyric for me. This is probably the most accurate way to describe my current state, traveling from place to place, with my guard down.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Joan Koenig - El Duende, the pharmakon, et les imperméables

El Duende, the pharmakon, et les imperméables
Reflexions on the Salzburg 547 Seminar

Julie Burstein’s presentation of Duende, juxtaposed with Arne Dietrich’s exposé of explicit and implicit memory systems was a wonderful way to begin the Salzburg seminar. The world was young, our hearts were light, and our Pre-Frontal Cortexes were fresh.

Once in our subgroup, Nigel Osborne brought to our attention the « duo » in duende. Etymology is often an inspiration, I love looking at the origins of words, and I like to think that etymology can shed light on our understanding of the human condition.

So our Duende is not a solo phenomenon. Although I have not found corroboration in etymological dictionaries, I will trust the noble Nigel’s wisdom, or perhaps simply his intuition.
In bullfighting, duende is the moment when the matador literally enchants the bull, encouraging him to lower his head, slowing and shortening his charge, making him follow the muleta with mysterious mastery, or duende.
The two are engaged in a mesmerizing, silent, slow “dance macabre".

Duende is something that can never be experienced alone; it is the interaction between a being, and an exterior stimulation. Dr. Johnson included “dead councilors” as possible partners. Is not a great book and our reading of it a magnificent form of duende?

Leaving the Latin debate for a moment, let’s look at another form of trance, transgression or transmutation, this time from ancient Greece: φάρμακον
The pharmakon is the poison and the antidote; I find the pharmakon an analogy for the human condition. It seems that most everything that mankind has invented has been used for progress and annihilation. The wheel became a tank, fire became a weapon, and the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries are shameful examples of careless greed.

Is music an exception? Plato said  “to control a society, you must control it’s music. “ And yet, music has for the major part, not taken this path. Used for propaganda, yes sometimes, but this is not and has never been the dominant role of music.

Will Neuroscience prove to be an exception? What was striking to me in our conference was the number of fellows using neuroscience with the objective of healing. The coupling of music and neuroscience is a natural partnership: partners in healing, not in crime. 

Permeability was a concept that we spoke about in our focus group on education. I was trying to explain that in music and language acquisition, a lack of permeability is a significant hindrance. The problem was that the word is rarely used outside of biology in English.  I just couldn’t seem to explain that the word in French is just part of everyday vocabulary.  It was finally at the airport that I realized that if I had only explained the word for raincoat, everyone would have understood. In French a raincoat is an imperméable. So if we are impermeable, we are waterproof; rain, tears, joy or despair will roll off of us with no effect.

I did not find many fellows at the Salzburg 547 wearing raincoats!  You are a wonderful group, zestful and zany, eccentric and brainy. Many of you wear your amygdalae on your sleeves.

Duende is a necessity, the pharmakon not a fatality. We can accomplish many things by pooling our resources, ideas, talents and our permeability.
Let’s take off our raincoats and push up our amygdalae clad sleeves, there is work to be done!

Joan Koenig
Paris 13 March 2015

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Anna Abraham – The Meandering Imagination

Understanding the dynamics of the creative process and, more widely, the human imagination is what my work is all about. With regard to the question of how my neuroscience relates to art, three strands of ideas that I want to address in the near future are especially relevant in the context of the Salzburg 547 experience.

1. Conceptual expansion and the creative-receptive process
There are several ways to expand the mind and they usually involve the juxtaposition or merging of previously unlinked ideas or concepts in an original manner. Regardless of whether we are the active formulators of this creative combination as artists or merely its passive recipients as the audience, our conceptual structures are being fundamentally altered during the experience in both cases. Our incredibly plastic brains are continually rewired to accommodate new bridges that are being erected between concepts that were until that point unrelated or only weakly associated. 
⇒ So, how are the processes of active conceptual expansion (creating art) versus passive conceptual expansion (experiencing art) differentially instantiated in the brain? What factors determine how one informs, influences, and/or impinges on the other? 

2. In search of authenticity in reality and fantasy
Consider the following. You are waiting in an airport for your mother to arrive. The doors slide open. Strangers trickle out. Your wait continues. Suddenly you see her. Her familiar face darts out from the rest. But to say that you notice her merely because she is familiar does not fully capture what you experience. You feel some degree of excitement. Your cheeks are likely to be warm. You experience a combination of being alert yet relaxed. It is as though she feels more real to you than all the others there. Why is that? Is it is intensity of emotion evoked? Or your shared memories and histories? Something more? Something else? 
⇒ Which factors determine our sense of reality? What allows us to believe and espouse some knowledge as truths and others as falsehoods? How do we establish authenticity in reality (our social world) and in fantasy (through the creative arts)? 

3. The self-actualization drive: Creative opportunities and wellbeing
Maslow’s needs hierarchy is the well-known conceptual pyramid depicting the organization of human needs along a continuum with rudimentary needs at the bottom, comfort needs in the middle, and self-enlightenment needs on top. Evidence that we experience and cater to these needs in an ascending stepladder fashion is weak, but our consumption-driven world is nonetheless organized around meeting or aspiring to the bottom and middle rungs of the needs hierarchy. The top level is largely ignored, probably because is difficult to monetize. What is the impact, both individually and societally, of disregarding the drive to realize one’s unique potential?  
⇒ In what ways are the existing systems (education, community, etc.) failing children and adults over the lifespan, and how can these be rectified? Should this be a public health concern given its impact on mental health and wellbeing? 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Malinda McPherson - Even and Uneven Partnerships

When laboratory studies involve music, it is often critical to have input from musicians in order to create ecologically valid test conditions and stimuli. For example, in a current study underway with Charles, we are examining emotional expression in jazz improvisation. Input from musicians (such as Mike Pope) was fundamental in determining our experimental design. Although we studied jazz musicians and drew on their insights, the results ultimately show more about creativity and emotional expression as general abilities than they do about music or jazz more specifically. Our results don’t immediately provide information of practical use to the musicians we studied, or to artists more generally.

Intersections between art and neuroscience are not always equally productive for both disciplines. Art can be a means for scientific inquiry, but neuroscientists cannot assume that by incorporating art forms into our studies, we are somehow helping or informing artists. Likewise, art inspired by neuroscience is not inherently helpful or informative to neuroscientists (though it certainly can be). We should not expect that every interaction between art and neuroscience can (or should) be equally beneficial to both fields.

While it is important to foster mutual constructive relationships between neuroscience and art, there is a significant place for commensal exchanges, where one discipline may benefit more than the other.

A common theme throughout the conference was that artists and neuroscientists often talk past one another. They have different reference points, lexicons, assumptions, motivations and goals. In any collaboration between the arts and neuroscience, it is important to engage with and build out from these differences. The scope of collaborations should be assessed critically, with an awareness of the distinct backgrounds and objectives of artists and scientists, and the varying outcomes for each field.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Noah Hutton - 3 Questions for Connecting Art and Neuroscience

3 Questions for Connecting Art and Neuroscience 

When we say we want to connect neuroscience and art, I think we mean more generally that we want to reconcile the objective with the intuitive. This reconciliation—or what E.O. Wilson called “consilience”—can take myriad forms in childhood arts education, lifelong learning, fine art, or empirical studies of creativity and perception. But there are easy reconciliations, and more difficult and undefined ones. I believe the key to breaking new ground in this dialogue between the objective and the intuitive is to avoid two easy routes: first, treating neuroscience solely as the objective metric of the intuitively already-known, and second, treating neuroscience as the ultimate end-domain for objective answers to mysterious unknowns. Instead, I think we ought to turn to the layered architecture of the brain itself for guidance. To achieve its interdisciplinary best, I like to think of neuroscience as a layer that slides into the conversation or into the creative act, deepening our experience and fundamentally altering anything that is made or discussed in its context, merely by its presence as an ontological lens through which things must pass. Creativity comes from mysterious places, and flows through many layers within us before anything takes form outside of us. I think neuroscience can help form another of those layers—it can penetrate into the murky realms of the intuitive—and before long, as a society, we may start to view questions of identity, reality, and memory through new eyes.

In my own work, I recently created a multiplatform project for the Times Square Arts Alliance in New York City called “Brain City,” which featured a 3-minute video that immersed viewers in the latest visuals of brain structures from leading neuroscience projects around the world, playing simultaneously on twenty billboard displays in Times Square at midnight each night for a month. There were also printed banners on the street that drew analogies between urban landscapes and neural ones, and a playful website that connects sites around NYC to analogous brain locations and functions ( This spring I am collaborating with neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux of NYU to create a short fictional film based on his upcoming book, Anxious, which investigates his pioneering work on the neuroscience of emotion. 

In these projects and in any future collaborations that attempt to connect art and neuroscience, my practice will keep a few questions in mind:

  • Has this project meaningfully passed through a layer of neuroscience?
  • Are the necessary tools for engagement embedded in the message or the medium of the project itself?
  • How will the interdisciplinarity of the project yield something that is new, and not just new for new’s sake?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Steven Fowler - Reflections and Comments on Salzburg Global Seminar 547

Steven Fowler - Reflections and Comments on Salzburg Global Seminar 547

Totally Cerebral - A new podcast series with Julie Burstein and Wendy Suzuki

Part 1: Untangling the Mystery of Memory.  
Part 2: The Man Without a Memory.

The A.V. club wrote that the series is "gripping and immediate the way the best sort of storytelling podcast can be, as these scientists are not only bright but personable and emotionally connected to their studies" 

We'd love to hear what you think, too!

Totally Cerebral is part of a new initiative from PRX called Transistor, which is supported by the Sloan Foundation.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Harry Ballan - Music Therapy and Wernicke's Aphasia

At the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, we see many cases of Broca's aphasia, in which the patient is unable to speak as a result of a stroke or other event affecting an area of the left hemisphere that's considered necessary for speech. More rarely, we see cases of Wernicke's aphasia, in which a different part of the left hemisphere is affected which prevents the patient from UNDERSTANDING language. Whereas we have had great success teaching Broca's aphasics to speak by recruiting areas of the right hemisphere using a technique called melodic intonation therapy, it is less obvious what is to be done in Wernicke's cases. Wernicke's aphasics seem to be miserable and may scream incessantly. Unfortunately, the institutional approach is often simply to medicate, i.e., sedate them, without addressing the misery. 

We found with this Wernicke's patient that we were able to reach her through an hour and a half of very engaged music therapy on Thursday. She has been calm now for several days and has continued to respond well to music. The screaming has stopped and she seems much more content. This is after only one session and much more work will need to be done. I'm not prepared to draw any general conclusions!

I share this experience because it is the beginning of a new project at the intersection of neuroscience and art and also because I wonder if any of you has had relevant experience with Wernicke's aphasia that you would be willing to share. 

By the way, an interesting implication of the experience I described is that music does communicate differently from speech (we already knew that) even though Wernicke's area is involved in both. The fact that music and speech are understood by similar but different neural mechanisms (a subject we are currently investigating at the Yale Brain Function Lab) opens up therapeutic possibilities with certain categories of difficult-to-reach patients that have not previously been investigated or systematically explored. Siyuan (Siyuan Liu) and I discussed the possibility of using music therapy to try to reach patients with early onset schizophrenia. Perhaps some of the same neural mechanisms that permit communication with a Wernicke's aphasic may be used to reach early onset schizophrenics. 

Written by Harry Ballan

Bruce Adolphe - CONVERGENCE ZONES (Whether in the brain or in Salzburg)

All science connects to art in that thinking about the unknown or unarticulated idea is a creative act, and whether the next step is research and discovery or a piece of music, it is making the abstract real and available. In ancient European music, an early form of richly complex counterpoint was called a ricercare. This word, which means an early type of fugue, literally means research and in this sort of music, the composer researches a subject, which is a musical thoughtWe still use the word subject to mean the main "theme" of a fugue. We have moved away from the idea that music is a science and that science is an art, but we are coming back to it, thankfully. Both serve to illuminate ourselves and our world.

For the past 20 years or so, ever since I met Antonio Damasio at the Aspen Institute, I have occasionally devoted my energies to composing music inspired by concepts in neuroscience, and the most recent work was premiered at the Brain and Creativity Institute this past October, 2014. That work, Musics of Memory, was structured to reflect the way memory works (and doesn't) in the brain. The idea was to present an opening movement for the protagonist solo piano that represents a "lived experience" to be remembered, which is then "mapped" by other instruments (guitar, marimba, harp — all instruments capable of keyboard-like harmonies), and then reassessed and rearranged as it is stored in various ways in the brain; and finally it is re-collected as recollection or memory, and the final piano solo is not quite like the lived experience. We all know what that feels like.

Here is the structure:

I. Lived Experience (piano solo)
II. Mapping (guitar, marimba, harp, and piano commentary)
III. Reassessed, Rearranged (all)
IV. Recollection (all, but primarily piano solo)

This piece, as with my previous neuroscience-inspired works, was performed in public and followed by a discussion provoked by the piece with neuroscientists and the audience about memory. After the premiere at the Brain and Creativity Institute, BCI director Antonio Damasio and Assal Habibi (director of the music and brain team at BCI) joined me onstage to discuss with the audience (lots of participation) issues raised by the piece and also, of course, by people's own experiences of memory and memory loss. 

I dedicated the piece to Nicholas Maw, a dear friend and great composer who died at age 71 after suffering from Alzheimer's for quite a few years. The feeling of memory disintegration was palpable in the music.

My plan for my relationship as a composer to neuroscience is to continue this collaboration, but also to bring something I learned from the Salzburg Global Seminar into focus in designing new research experiments with music. While I am not quite ready to articulate what I learned there — since it is still forming in my mind — I would say that the discussions of improvisation and composition have led me to the brink of a new idea, which I will inform you of when it crystalizes. Perhaps some of you can explain how it is that I am sure I have a new idea and yet do not know yet what it is. It is, for me, a familiar feeling, if unanalyzed. (I do know the experiments that relate to this common phenomenon.)

Several people mentioned to me that they would like to collaborate on projects, and I am hoping that these were not merely comments inspired by free wine or too much coffee. Please, contact me. We will figure it out.

Thank you all for letting loose and not holding back with your presentations, ideas, and comments. It was great fun and unforgettable.

Yours in New York,


Written By Bruce Adolphe