Improvisations on ‘Improvisation in the Sciences’

Guest post by Ted Altschuler

comebebrainy2015I 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.

Improvisation 3

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! Continue reading

Triggering the Brain’s Emotional Response

A relentless rain didn’t keep attendees from filling the elegant auditorium at Columbia University’s Italian Academy for Tuesday evening’s panel discussion on “Shaping the Brain,” a Brain Awareness Week event that also celebrated the Mind Brain Behavior Institute—a university-wide effort to integrate neuroscience with allied disciplines like psychology and statistics, but also studies in the humanities and social sciences.

“I see neuroscience as providing a modern angle on concepts derived and cultivated outside itself,” said Columbia faculty and Dana Alliance member Michael Shadlen. “It’s a two-way exchange, a dialogue.”

Among the three Columbia professors who discussed their work, art historian David Freedberg best exemplified this broad vision. When he began his studies in the 70s, he said, “one was not allowed to talk about emotions in art, let alone the notion that when you look at a picture, your body is involved in the experience.”

But this, he felt sure, was essential to the universal power of great artworks. “My aim was to reinsert emotions and the body back into the esthetic experience…and even in the mid-1980s I realized we couldn’t go ahead without understanding the neural substrate of our emotional, visceral, physical responses to works of art.”

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The Deliberating Brain: Columbia’s Mind Brain Behavior Initiative

Not long ago, my editor asked if I wanted to cover a lecture
by a premier neuroscience researcher on the fascinating topic of “the
deliberating brain,” preceded by cocktails at one of New York’s most elegant
old hotels.

As decisions go, I thought, this was a no-brainer.

But I was wrong. One thing that Dana Alliance member Michael
N. Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D., made very clear in his talk, hosted by the Columbia
University Mind Brain Behavior Initiative
 and sponsored by the Dana
Foundation, is that no decision is a no-brainer. “By understanding the building
blocks of decision making,” he told his audience, “we can understand how the
brain achieves cognition writ large.”

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