The Arts and the Brain

Arts brain aaasFrom left, Alan Leshner of AAAS, Christopher Tyler, Nina Kraus, and Gary Vikan answer audience questions.

Our brains glow with activity when we view or do art. Now that scientists can scan our brains in the act of observation and creation, what can they tell us about what is going on in there?

Quite a bit, we discovered during an evening of talk, food, music, and interactive art at the AAAS office in Washington, D.C., last Thursday. Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco presented images ranging from cave drawings to Jackson Pollock that illustrated the idea of embodied cognition.“You can’t appreciate the work unless you feel it in your body,” he said.

Visual artistic experience makes impressions in our brains, from the areas associated with perception through those associated with motor control and emotional tone. And if we feel viewed art in our bodies, we feel it even more when creating it.

“Learning and performing visual art, such as drawing, has the power to enhance memory and spatial cognition,” even in the blind, he said. We canharness the power of drawing to drive brain plasticity and enhance memory, Tyler said, citing research by his colleague Lora Likova. To separate the visual process from the physical process of learning to draw, Likova recruited congenitally blind adults. She used an elaborated training procedure called the Cognitive-Kinesthetic Training Method, including asking her subjects to learn to draw by tracing raised-line drawn images of everyday objects with their fingers, and then repeating the remembered lines using pen on paper. Using a specially built easel, the volunteers underwent fMRI scanning while drawing the remembered images.

Not only did their representational skills improve after only a week’s training, but the amount of activity in the primary visual cortex (V1) area of the brain jumped (see images). “There was dramatic enhancement of the activation, very specific to primary visual cortex,” Tyler said, “a remarkable form of rapid neuroplasticity.”

Even better was their emotional reaction: “This is so exciting, this is going to change my life,” the volunteers told the researchers, according to Tyler. “There was a tremendous emotional boost from this artistic experience.” (See more at the Tyler lab website)

Next up was Nina Kraus of Northwestern University, who studies hearing, speech, and music perception, often using scalp electrodes. She quickly reviewed the “old news” that violin and other string players have more brain “realty” devoted to their left (fretting) fingers than their right (bowing) ones and that musicians have an improved ability to distinguish speech in noise (such as the voice of a friend speaking in a busy restaurant).

New to me was evidence that this skill carries into our old age, even if our musical training was decades ago. As we grow older, “noise in the signal” grows, but “even if you’re an older musician with hearing loss, you can distinguish speech in sound better than an older non-musician without hearing loss,” she said, citing research under review for publication. This improved “auditory working memory” is mode-specific; older musicians did not show improved visual abilities.

Another surprise was the connection between rhythm and reading: If you are a poor reader, you’re not very good at tapping to a beat, either, Kraus said. Nor speaking: auditory-motor coupling is important for fluid speech.

How might musical instruction improve things? Kraus and her lab are running longitudinal studies of under-served children in Chicago and Los Angeles, some receiving classroom music lessons, some not. In general, these kids have more neural noise in their brain signals than average, “like static on the radio,” Kraus said, and they respond to sound less and less consistently.

She wondered if music training could offset this, and it does appear to, in direct and indirect ways, according to soon-to-be-published research. In addition to improving their ability to remember the beat and perceive important sound in noise, children who received lessons in second grade showed greater improvement in reading scores in third grade compared with those without lessons.

“Auditory processing is shaped by sensory-social environment,” Kraus said. These studies “really show the importance of education: School-based group music instruction is creating a situation to create a better learner for language.” (Look for more on this research on dana.org soon; also see slides on the Kraus lab site)

Both researchers emphasized that making art offers stronger brain benefits than simply observing it. As Kraus put it, “You’re not going to get physically fit by watching sports.”

Gary Vikan, former director of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, sought to up the activity level in museum-goers by “inviting the audience to be fellow experimenters.” In 2010, the Walters teamed up with researcher Ed Connor at Johns Hopkins University to put on the exhibit/experiment “Beauty and the Brain,” inviting people to observe a variety of slightly altered 3-D shapes based on a work of Jean Arp and state their preferences. More than 3,000 people recorded their impressions, and the results are presented in the AAAS’s gallery (open to the public), along with a repeat of the exhibit, offering you a chance to see how your preferences match up. (See also my write-up on the exhibit.)

After the passive stimulation of these talks, the audience (an overflowing 275-plus people) adjourned to the AAAS foyer to be stimulated by the mellow tones of cellist Vasily Popov:

Arts brain aaas receptionCellist Vasily Popov inspires guests during a lively discussion at AAAS.

This event was the last in the 2013 Neuroscience and Society series, a partnership between the Dana Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A video of the session is available on the Dana website. Videos of previous sessions include: The Adolescent BrainNeuroscience and the Law; The Aging Brain: What’s New in Brain Research, Treatment, and Policy; and Neuroenhancement: Building an Improved Body and Mind.

–Nicky Penttila

One response

  1. Pingback: Art and the Brain | Nicky Penttila

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