Neuroscience and the arts: what does it mean?

By Robin Migdol

Science reveals the value of music

Making connections

Surely one of the reasons we are so fascinated by art is because the creative process is, despite our preoccupation with it, still largely a mystery. For all we have learned about art and how to make and communicate it, the artistic impulse remains elusive. You have it or you don’t. You get it or you don’t. You have a relationship with it or you don’t. Art has power over us; those who make it, who do it well, have mystical, alchemical powers that can’t be bottled. Great art resonates in ways we find difficult to explain, even though we labor mightily to do so; indeed, it may be art’s ability to frustrate algorithmic certitude that keeps us plugging along.

But what if we could solve the equation, snap the pieces of the puzzle together, understand how art works and why it does what it does to us?  Just how disappointed would you be?

An explosion of neurological research into how the brain perceives and processes art and creativity suggests we may one day be forced to rethink the role of art in our lives.

Neuroscientists have put hundreds of brains under the scanner – literally and figuratively – in order to watch what happens inside our heads when we experience music and art. The findings, in many cases, are quite unexpected. Music helps dyslexic children read and perceive sounds more accurately;music can also increase speech comprehension in elderly people with hearing loss, and inspire empathy in groups. Other studies point to tangible, specific long-term benefits of learning music as a child and suggest that “music makes you smarter.”

If our responses to the magic of Bob Marley or Frida Kahlo were reduced to measurable sequences of neural pathways firing and EEG printouts and MRI scans, artistic value might be calculated as merely another scientific formula rather than for its ability to charm. What fun is that? A piece of music, for example, might be judged not by its artistic value, but by its potential for inducing a particular scientifically-observed neural response. A child could be encouraged to sing not because she loves it, but because it will increase her aptitude for math. This is already happening, to a degree, but for now the payoff is guesswork. What happens when the data not only defines creativity but begins to dictate it?

Might we lose the very properties attributed to art that help make it so valued? Until now, music and painting and dance and theatre have been celebrated, in part, because of their non-scientific qualities. If we use science to study art, we might turn art into science and in the process lose its essence.

But what science could ever truly explain the allure of great artists past and present? No amount of data is likely ever to adequately explain why Twyla Tharp’s dance so inspires us or why we are enthralled with the Mona Lisa. Art, almost by definition, is not objective. There are no right or wrong answers, and though we may accept that some artists are simply better than others, no numbers or data sheets  satisfactorily explain those claims. While science may take some of the mystery out of the neurologic processes that make art possible, we needn’t worry that it will ever fully explain what makes art tick.

Instead, our new arsenal of knowledge offers opportunities to appreciate art more than ever and perhaps at an even deeper level. Understanding the biological effects of art might  open up interesting avenues to new creations, new collaborations and new ways to experience art. With new technologies at our disposal, we could begin to shape the art of the future in harmony with our bodies

We may never completely understand art or why it’s been around almost since humans first walked the planet.  We don’t need to know how our neurons process a Yo-Yo Ma cello solo  to appreciate its power as a great work of art. But neuroscience holds out the possibility of taking  us places we’ve not yet dreamed of – just like the best art always has.

[Neuroscience and arts education]

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