This is your brain on art

Some of the an­swers to art’s mys­ter­ies can be found in sci­ence. So we asked the sci­en­tists

Waterloo Region Record - - ARTS & LIFE - Sarah L. Kauf­man

If you think about it, hav­ing a great time at the the­atre de­fies logic in many ways. We en­ter a space where we’re sur­rounded by strangers. We’re bom­barded with un­usual ac­tions and im­ages, and un­der­stand­ing them can de­pend on de­ci­pher­ing a word­less lan­guage of sym­bols. Once mean­ing sets in, we risk dis­play­ing emo­tional re­ac­tions in pub­lic, which in other sit­u­a­tions might lead to feel­ings of shame.

Yet, on a good night, at least, when we’re at a live per­for­mance we some­how over­come our in­hi­bi­tions to laugh more, cry more and gen­er­ally en­joy our­selves more than when we’re watch­ing a show at home. The ex­pe­ri­ence may ab­sorb us so much that we even lose our­selves and feel con­nected to some­thing larger. How does this hap­pen?

Some of the an­swers to art’s mys­ter­ies can be found in sci­ence. Art is con­sid­ered the do­main of the heart, but its trans­port­ing ef­fects start in the brain, where in­tri­cate sys­tems per­ceive and in­ter­pret it with daz­zling speed. Us­ing brain-imag­ing and other tools of neu­ro­science, the new field of neu­roaes­thet­ics is prob­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween art and the brain.

Whether it’s a con­cert, play, opera or bal­let, see­ing a live per­for­mance is a neu­ral rush on many lev­els. As an ex­am­ple, let’s look at the bal­let “Swan Lake” to see how it trips your brain cells, from the mo­ment you take your seat.

Many of the lead­ing neu­ro­sci­en­tists study­ing art and the brain were in­ter­viewed for this story.

Their find­ings sug­gest new ways to think about the arts and how we re­late to them. What is pre­sented here is a com­pi­la­tion of their the­o­ries.

We loved to be en­ter­tained in a crowd

So­cial con­nec­tion is one of the strengths of our species — it’s how we learn from oth­ers by im­i­ta­tion.

We’re keenly at­tuned to the emo­tions and ac­tions of peo­ple around us, be­cause our brains are de­signed for this.

If, for ex­am­ple, you’ve gone to an ex­per­i­men­tal per­for­mance-art piece where there’s hardly any­one in the au­di­ence but you, and you’ve felt a lit­tle ex­posed and awk­ward, this is why.

We don’t gen­er­ally like be­ing iso­lated from a group. We crave so­cial con­nec­tion. And the cues we get from those around us, whether in a ball­park, a movie the­atre or a con­cert hall, help our brains make sense of our sur­round­ings. This starts from the mo­ment we walk into a crowd.

An au­di­ence of­fers a rich so­cial and sen­sory en­vi­ron­ment that en­gages sev­eral parts of the brain. The “so­cial brain net­work,” which in­cludes the tem­poropari­etal junc­tion and the me­dial pre­frontal cor­tex, is in­volved in de­cod­ing fa­cial ex­pres­sions. It’s also used in so­cial per­cep­tion, like sens­ing that the per­son next to us is get­ting rest­less.

The “mir­ror neu­ron sys­tem,” which con­tains cells that rep­re­sent ac­tions, is ac­ti­vated when we de­tect the move­ments and emo­tions of other peo­ple. This sys­tem al­lows us to co-or­di­nate our be­hav­iour with those around us — to set­tle as the lights dim and ap­plaud when oth­ers do. It also helps us per­ceive strong emo­tions and spread them. When we feel that oth­ers around us are emo­tion­ally moved — when they’re sad­dened, star­tled or de­lighted — our own emo­tions can be­come am­pli­fied, and sensed by the peo­ple next to us.

This so­cial con­nec­tion is part of a key func­tion of our brains: mak­ing sense of hu­man be­hav­iour, a large part of which is

eval­u­at­ing move­ment within us and around us.

Move­ment is ir­re­sistible

Ma­jor parts of the brain are mainly con­cerned with move­ment and send­ing mo­tor com­mands to our mus­cles so that our bod­ies can func­tion and we can move as we need to for sur­vival.

The brain is highly stim­u­lated by mo­tion, body lan­guage, fa­cial ex­pres­sion, ges­tures — all the mo­tor per­cep­tions that could af­fect sur­vival and our suc­cess in so­cial set­tings. These el­e­ments com­bine in the “Swan Lake” ex­pe­ri­ence.

But we’re not only vis­ually pulled to the move­ments of oth­ers. We feel them, in some small way, in our bod­ies. Ac­cord­ing to the mir­ror sys­tem the­ory, our brain au­to­mat­i­cally mim­ics other peo­ple’s ac­tions through its mo­tor sys­tem.

When a dancer leaps or turns, we may em­pa­thet­i­cally feel a soar­ing sen­sa­tion in re­sponse.

Many sci­en­tists be­lieve we map other peo­ple’s ac­tions into our own so­matosen­sory sys­tem, which con­veys sen­sa­tion through the brain and body and helps us em­pathize with oth­ers. This al­lows us to take in a per­former’s sep­a­rate mo­tions as one psy­cho­log­i­cally rich phrase. A se­ries of jumps be­comes an ex­pres­sion of yearn­ing, be­cause we au­to­mat­i­cally grasp the emo­tion at­tached to it. Even in the word­less art of dance, with our brain’s ca­pac­ity for em­pa­thy we can be­gin to dis­cover mean­ing — and a story.

We’re pulled in by a story

A nar­ra­tive con­veys in­for­ma­tion from one per­son’s brain to an­other’s in an ef­fec­tive way. We can learn vi­car­i­ously through an­other’s ex­pe­ri­ence from a safe space, with­out re­ally be­ing in­volved, which is why sto­ry­telling is so pow­er­ful. We em­bark on a jour­ney con­structed by some­one else and, as we see in “Swan Lake,” we can em­pathize with what the char­ac­ters go through with­out suf­fer­ing the full force of fresh heart­break.

“Swan Lake” tells a rather straight­for­ward story of good vs. evil. It cen­ters on Princess Odette, who has been put un­der a spell and must live a dou­ble life as a swan by day, woman by night, un­til she finds true love. Prince Siegfried pledges him­self to her, but he breaks his vow when a se­duc­tive vil­lain­ess named Odile, also known as the “Black Swan,” fools him into be­tray­ing Odette.

The bal­let ends in tragedy — and para­dox­i­cally, we like that.

Re­search shows we tend to em­pathize more with char­ac­ters in sad sto­ries, and this may trig­ger hor­mones re­lated to con­sol­ing and bond­ing.

Go­ing back to the brain bonus of be­ing in an au­di­ence, shar­ing a strong emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence with oth­ers con­nects us and makes us feel good.

The logic of art is a neu­ral turn-on

Sci­en­tists study­ing var­i­ous as­pects of the arts be­lieve cer­tain com­po­nents es­pe­cially ex­cite the brain. Neu­ro­sci­en­tist V.S. Ra­machan­dran pro­poses sev­eral uni­ver­sal laws of art, or com­mon pat­terns found in art­works across time and cul­tures. These prin­ci­ples pow­er­fully ac­ti­vate our vis­ual cen­ters. In the­ory, they tap into evolved sur­vival re­sponses. Among those found in “Swan Lake” are iso­la­tion, con­trast and metaphor.

Iso­la­tion: Sin­gling out one el­e­ment helps the brain block other sen­sory in­for­ma­tion and fo­cus at­ten­tion. This mag­ni­fies our emo­tional re­ac­tion, es­pe­cially when the el­e­ment is sim­pli­fied to bare es­sen­tials. Odette is set apart from the rest of the cast, and she is rec­og­niz­able as a swan with just a few ges­tures.

Con­trast: The brain detects bound­aries best when the edges are dis­tinct, es­pe­cially for ob­jects next to each other.

The black-and-white colour scheme of “Swan Lake” sets the main char­ac­ters apart.

Metaphor: Link­ing seem­ingly un­re­lated el­e­ments can heighten emo­tion and em­pa­thy. Our brains cre­ate mean­ing from Odette’s swan move­ments, and this deep­ens our per­cep­tion of her pain.

Body shapes stir dif­fer­ent emo­tions

Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Ju­lia F. Chris­tensen and her col­leagues at City, Univer­sity of London, had sub­jects rate their emo­tions trig­gered by brief, silent videos of bal­let dancers, with nei­ther mu­sic nor fa­cial ex­pres­sions to in­flu­ence them. Soft, round and open body shapes elicited pos­i­tive feel­ings, as in Odette’s whirling im­ages of flight.

Edgy body shapes trig­gered neg­a­tive emo­tions, such as the Black Swan’s spiky, asym­met­ri­cal moves. They’re im­pres­sive, but also a lit­tle alarm­ing.

Mu­sic is the per­fect part­ner

In an­other study, Chris­tensen and her col­leagues showed sub­jects silent dance clips and ones that in­cluded mu­sic. The sub­jects wore fin­ger­tip sweat-de­tec­tion de­vices to mon­i­tor their raw emo­tional re­sponses. When the mu­sic and dance matched — that is, sad mu­sic plus sad danc­ing — the sub­jects’ bod­ily re­sponses and their re­ported feel­ings were stronger. If the mu­sic did not match, the re­sponses were weaker.

Some­thing hap­pens when emo­tion­ally com­pat­i­ble mu­sic and dance com­bine, which is more pow­er­ful than a ran­dom com­bi­na­tion.

Put­ting it all to­gether

When you go to the bal­let — or any other show — you’re en­ter­ing into a highly con­trolled ex­pe­ri­ence. If ev­ery­thing works as planned, all the el­e­ments con­trib­ute to a kind of shared con­scious­ness. In ef­fect, your bil­lions of brain cells are in­ter­act­ing with bil­lions of other brain cells, busily mak­ing the mi­cro­scopic con­nec­tions that yoke to­gether the brains of those present with an al­most in­escapable force. This hap­pens from the mo­ment we au­to­mat­i­cally tune our­selves to the au­di­ence. Soon we’re vi­car­i­ously feel­ing and mak­ing mean­ing out of the ac­tions on stage, watch­ing a story un­fold that con­nects us with the per­form­ers, re­spond­ing to the mag­netism of spe­cific vis­ual cues, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing height­ened emo­tions as mu­sic and move­ment en­twine and even bond­ing with those around us. It’s just as the artists — chore­og­ra­phers, di­rec­tors, play­wrights, com­posers, per­form­ers — in­tended. And this mag­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion starts within the ar­chi­tec­ture of one brain. Yours.

Art has emerged from the hu­man brain for tens of thou­sands of years, and ev­ery hu­man cul­ture makes it. Yet sci­en­tists are only be­gin­ning to un­der­stand how the brain per­ceives and pro­duces art, and why. Like so many art­works, the brain is largely an ob­ject of mys­tery. One se­cret yet to be dis­cov­ered is how the frag­ile folds of mat­ter locked in­side our skulls can not only con­ceive art, cre­ate it and con­tem­plate it, but can also ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing trans­ported by it, out of the head, out of the body, out of space and time and re­al­ity it­self.


Nicole Graniero of the Wash­ing­ton Bal­let demon­strates a leap, a move from "Swan Lake."

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