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Biology 103
2001 First Web Report
On Serendip

There and Back Again: An Artist's Exploration of the Science behind Art and Creativity

Tua Chaudhuri

Over the years, as the disciplines of "art" and "science" have become more defined in themselves, they have become further opposed to one another on the academic spectrum. Students of the arts often cringe in fear and disgust of rational analysis and numbers, while those of the sciences have been known to acquire nervous twitches when spoken to of literary theory and poetry analysis. The child of two molecular biologists, having learnt more about cells then I know what to do with, I have stood staunchly beside my artistic endeavors and as far away from "science" as I could possibly get. With this study, however, I decided to travel the un-trodden path and bring back news from the other side. I set off to discover what it was that makes a person write a poem, paint a picture, sing a song, and love or hate a work of art; and discovered that not only are these two disciplines indelibly interconnected as ways by which we explain our existence, but also in that each defines and motivates the other.

In order to understand how the brain functions creatively, the brain's basic processes of cognition must be understood. The cerebral cortex, or outermost covering of the brain, is the part of the brain credited with "higher mental functions" and "making the humankind human" (1). It is separated into two hemispheres that are joined in the middle by a bundle of nerve cells. Nerve cells, or neurons, are spread throughout the different lobes and perform specific functions depending upon where they are located (see figure). Fig. 1 (1). These nerve cells have appendages called dendrites that are like the operators of the nervous system. The point at which they meet with axons (cells carrying nerve impulses) is called a synapse. These synapses relay messages throughout the body which control touch, thought, sound, sight, taste, memory, and all other human sensations (1).

In recent years, with the use of advanced scanners and other technology, scientists have been able to more intricately trace the process of thought and sensation. With this advanced study, neurobiologists have found that the minute functions, positioning, and development of certain brain cells directly affect the ways different people express themselves in and react to works of art (2). In his essay "Creativity and the Brain", Semir Zeki, calls this variability in creative expression "one of the chief determinants evolution [cultural]" (2). He argues that the reason people manifest their emotions in a variety of ways is due to the particular types of cells in which have been more nurtured and developed than others in the brain. For instance, he mentions the work of Piet Mondrian, an artist of the 20th century who, in search of the truth in shapes, composed very linear drawings of rectangles and squares (see fig 2 & 3). Zeki says that artists such as Mondrian are expressing impulses from orientation selective cells in the brain which "respond selectively" to straight lines. Another artist, which Zeki studies, is Alexander Calder, renowned for his mobiles (see fig 4). Zeki claims that Calder's art is an expression of the stimulation of motion selective cells located in area V5 of the brain. The lines, boxes, movement and colors are then not just expressions of emotions in a socio-cultural context but are electrical impulses in the brain as well. Zeki says, "This is why I believe that artists are, in a sense, neurobiologists who unknowingly study the brain with techniques unique to them. (2)." The works of art, which were created by electrical impulses, motivated neurobiologists to search for the scientific reasoning behind them. It seems a round about way of interpreting art, and it also adds another frame to the way the art is received. Not only are these findings interesting in that it enables artists to better manipulate their mediums to get across what they want, but it also supports Mondrian's ideas of pure forms. If there is a neuron that reacts solely to straight lines, it makes sense that this form is one evident in nature outside and above the elements of emotion, culture and society.

Many arguments have been made to preserve the arts in schools and to financially support artistic endeavors in general because they enhance mental activity (5). With the development of this area of neurobiology that which Zeki calls "neuroesthetics" (2), supporters of this argument can back themselves up with tangible observations of the brain. For instance, it has been found that "Šour mind regulates its activities by means of electric waves which are registered in the brain, emitting tiny electrochemical impulses of varied frequencies (3)." In general, we use what is called a beta rhythm which is most often used by the brain when it is alert or otherwise agitated (6). When we are learning things, this sometimes makes it difficult to concentrate because the brain is functioning at such high speeds. It has been discovered, however, that if the brain waves are slowed down to the alpha level, in which we are in a "state of physical and mental relaxation", our minds are more perceptive to learning new facts, learning languages, and using both hemispheres of the brain. One way to achieve this level of brain activity is through meditation; another way is through music (3). The e-zine Body and Mind claim that, "The vision of the human being as a whole, is the key to the global development of the being. (3)." Using music and art to mediate brain rhythms an individual enables themselves to use both parts of the brain, thereby becoming a more well-rounded person in the decisions she makes, and having a deeper more complex understanding of the things she learns.

In our culture, abstract ideas have been credited for creativity (4). Artists seek always to reach this pure emotion in their works. Some say it can not be reached because the minute you put and abstract idea into a medium, it becomes material, concrete. Some believe that the only true form of abstraction is emotion itself. As is said in the essay "In the Art of Language, the Brain Matters", "Š the concept of " pure " or absolute abstraction [is reserved] for those that, besides being deprived of color, mass and dimensions, are not also noticed by the sensorial organs. They are just "felt" by the mind. (4)." In other words, pure emotions are the only true form of the abstract because they do not have to be manifested in any material form to exist. We know that emotions exist because we can chart the electrical impulses they cause in the neurons. Art and music in this sense, are just methods we use to embody and visualize impulses of the brain. Robert Sylwester says in his essay "Art for the Brain's Sake," "Because our visual, auditory, and motor systems are essential to cognition, it's probable that the arts emerged to help develop them. (5). Biological functions create the "arts" and the "arts" motivate scientific exploration. In this sense, art is just another science, another study which attempts to observe and evaluate the world which we inhabit. And science is just another art form.

WWW Sources

1) The National Institute of Mental Health "The Brain's Inner Workings" , a 12-min video hosted by Leonard Nimoy.

2) SCIENCE magazine archives "Artistic Creativity and the Brain" Semir Zeki.,

3) Brain and Mind Electronic Magazine on Neuroscience "Art and the Brain in the Learning Process" and other articles.,

4) The Talking Page Literacy Organization "In the Art of Language, the Brain Matters" by Robert Lee Hotz LA Times Science Writer.

5)Educational Leadership "Art for the Brain's Sake"

6) The Journal of Neuroscience

7)Gray's Anatomy online‹diagram of the brain




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