Guest post by Ted Altschuler
I suggested to my friends at Dana that I would blog on Improvisation in the Sciences, the opening event of Brain Awareness Week New York City, as an improvisation. Being both an artist and a scientist, I thought this could be an engaging way to participate in an evening combining music, science and visual art, but its freewheeling form has run longer than expected! Here are excerpts. You can read the complete version on the ComeBeBraiNY website, as well as check out its Brain Awareness Week calendar of more than 30 New York events and Dana’s calendar of global events.
Antoine Roney, the saxophonist, and his 10-year old son Kojo, a drummer, have started to play. The music is relentless. The father, despite the agitated line he is playing, looks as if he is praying. His son pounds his kit with a terrifying drive. The variegated rhythms follow each other with continued unpredictability, yet their progress seems inevitable, the ingredients of great improv. Usually talks open with someone fumbling as they try to sync their laptop with a projector. Now this is an opening to a neuroscience talk!
Moderator Martin Chalfie is introduced as a chemist but works in the biology department at Columbia University and explores how neurons facilitate sensation, making him neither a chemist nor a biologist—typical neuroscientist! He is a multidisciplinarian, making him a good fit for an evening inspired by visual artist Romare Bearden’s 1977 Black Odyssey, a cycle of color-saturated collages and watercolors based on Homer’s epic poem, showing at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery. Bearden’s themes of returning home and improvisation in life and art are the jumping off points for the evening’s contributors.
Music professor George Lewis launches into something from a 2002 paper from Science. I love it: The trombonist on the panel starts with genetics! The Oxford English Dictionary definition of improvisation focuses on music that is spontaneous, unique—all true, but not enough, he says. Improvisation occurs across disciplines. We cannot pay attention to everything in the universe—yes, study of attention confirms that—we cannot control all aspects of our world. But we can change the plan when we encounter what we don’t expect. A security guard’s walky-talky squawks behind the curtain. This is distracting. Professor Lewis mimics it! He is improvising, showing us his adaptability as the environment gives him what he doesn’t expect. This, he posits, is a way we improvise in life. Did he pay that security guard?
Neuroscientist Michael Shadlen is plugging in his laptop. A jazz piece plays. Sea Breeze by Romare Bearden, he tells us. Touche, our neuroscientist has begun with music. He is telling us about an experiment. Electrical impulses were recorded from the brains of monkeys that were trained to move their eyes in response to a cue. The delay after the cue fell within a predictable range of time. After training, the neurons accurately predicted this delay. They anticipated the pattern. When he changed the delay, the neurons adapted and anticipated the new pattern. Whether we are talking about a journey away from home or away from the beat, our very neurons interact with our environment. Improvisation is at the core of decision making.
Millind Gajanan Watve tests responses to human- and computer-composed art trying to understand what in the components of art produces the experience we have of it. What is its grammar? What lends it coherence? While the musician talked about behavior and the neuroscientist of neurons, he looks at the art itself. Improvisation is about the balance of constraint and randomization, the expected and the unintended, he says…
The questioners have been coming up to the microphone: a quantum physicist, an anthropologist, a musician. This interests me less for the content of their questions than for illustrating George Lewis’s point that improvisation is relevant across disciplines. And it is in the spirit of Brain Awareness Week, as it exemplifies the many portals through which different people can experience neuroscience…
Ted Altschuler is co-chair of Brain Awareness Week events for the Society for Neuroscience Greater New York Chapter. He has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, directed theatre and opera, and taught acting using improvisation. He writes at http://bookeywookey.blogspot.com/ and tweets on the intersection of art and science, research and culture, data, and story.