Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

When our brains get funky

It all started when I found a message in my Facebook “Other messages” folder, which is where all the spam and letters from African princesses seeking my hand end up. This one had quite a ring to it: “Dear James, we would like to invite you to an Austrian schloss for a week to talk with other artists and neuroscientists about the intersection between these disciplines….”.

It turned out that Susi Seidel-Fox is not an African princess, but a wise and acute facilitator employed by a programme called the Salzburg Global Seminar, who was scouring the world for those of us who work and play in this narrow space between disciplines. Transferring to the formality of email, Susi rapidly persuaded me of the integrity of the programme, and of the exciting-looking, week-long seminar she was putting together. This was one of those events I knew I must attend, when you just know in your bones that this opportunity has to be seized. I felt a tremendous privilege to be asked to present at it, and to participate.

A week or so later, as the plane touched down in Salzburg, my total lack of preparation for the trip ahead showed itself as I tried to figure out what language is spoken in Austria! My schoolboy German failed me on my first attempt.

Arriving at Schloss Leopoldskron, the views stretching ahead across the lake to the Alps and the Untersberg massif were breathtaking and the buildings were grandiose. Later I learned about the schloss’ history in the hands of theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt, who had been a hero figure during my years studying drama and his renovations and creative eye live on in the brickwork and the décor.

The Max Reinhardt library is a spectacle to behold, not just for the impressive and ever-growing collection of books, focused these days on politics and international development, but for the ornate wooden carvings, hidden staircase and sense of atmosphere. As libraries increasingly get cut back and re-purposed in the UK (Cambridge Central Library is about to lose one of its three floors to private enterprise), and as reading-knowledge ever migrates online, I’ll hold this library dear and hope that many others also enjoy Reinhardt’s precious cultural legacy.

The conference had been suggested and then planned by two alumni of the seminar programme, Dr Gary Vikan and Dr Charles Limb. Vikan is a warm soul who for many years ran the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and has a long pedigree within the curatorial world. Limb is well known worldwide as an ear surgeon/neuroscientist with a penchant for exploring how music works; his predilection is befriending musicians and sticking them in a scanner! I recommend finding Limb online – his TED talk has justifiably had millions of views, and because his experimental collaborations with musicians of all kinds is truly pushing against the boundaries of biomedical knowledge.

We were treated to a short film of beatboxer Shodekeh Talifero (more about this genius shortly) having an endoscopy while making sounds: watching the organ and different components of the throat as it made an extraordinary range of sound takes an audience into a different arena of resonance with sound.

Spaces of creativity and dialogue

My nervousness at having to present what I do formally to such a high-flying group lasted until immediately after I had given my presentation three days in. I talked of how I came to be working with and enquiring of neuroscientists in Cambridge: focusing on the knowledge they already have about this most intricate organ, and exploring with them upon the knowledge they don’t yet have. This stemmed from experiencing first hand how dementia affects a person (see my earlier Contributoria article), making a film about that and becoming involved in public engagement around dementia, and interacting with dementia researchers.

I found myself on an eminent panel with Dr Sophie Scott of University College London, and independent scholar and author Patricia Leavy. Wedged between presentations that ranged from studying the psychology of creativity through to neuroimaging laughter in the brain, I decided to launch myself with passion and talk until the nerves ceased.

My presentation over, I could relax more into the immersive event and engage on a level playing field at last. Some of the neuroscience went over my head, but it was the genuine spaces of creativity and dialogue, most often measured by playfulness and engagement, that created the flow of the seminar. My art practice and time as a journalist has taught me it is often best to ask the simplest questions, and this is always my best strategy in working with neuroscientists.

Too much talk, too many sessions, with little time scheduled for real breakouts – I felt guilty mid-week for missing a session in order to join the schloss dog on a ramble round the lake, but the necessity of getting out into that glorious view, exercising my body instead of my cerebral cortex and following the rhythms of the non-human were crucial for my functioning. And I bumped into two of my fellow session participants also on the lam from the talking space.

Much of the conference dialogue I can’t report back, as we were happily bound by the Chatham House Rule, which gave greater freedom to express opinions and agree or disagree profusely, though none came to physical blows. I think many of us, despite having lots of experience setting up and running projects with a representative of the other discipline, had no idea what to expect of this week, particularly as there was no pre-discussed expected outcome, in the form of an exhibition, screenings of works, or public concert.

To organise such an experience, with open-ended parameters and with such a range of gifts, shows an extraordinary generosity of spirit and purse that is rare in the world today given the difficulties of fundraising for art projects, making a living as a creative, let alone seeking to make work that utilises the “hard” sciences.

Some of the scientists were, I think, humbled by the experience, existing neurological/biomedical knowledge, and collaborative eagerness of the artists. Some of us creatives were, I’m sure, delighted by the openness and creative engagement of the neuroscientists. I received an invitation to respond to dementia research within mice brains, and engaged in an intense dialogue on the morality and efficacy of animal experimentation, with mutual respect and goodwill on both sides. I won’t be engaging with that research, but I’m glad the dialogue was had and the door opened into worlds and viewpoints.

A strength of the planning of the conference, however, was that built in to the sessions was an explicit “where do we take this dialogue?”. Mid-week, some of us opted to start planning how to continue this with a suggested framework for the whole group of how to stay in touch, how to support each other with projects and how to grow a network of those who like us believe in that creative space and search for the sources of innovation and dialogue.

No price tags

Highlighting a few of the other participants, I caught up recently with musical ambassador and beatbox scientist Shodekeh, on his experience of the seminar: “ Basically I wound up becoming the de facto music director of the entire conference. Gee, now how on earth did that happen? I just can’t help myself sometimes… Rocking with Ben Folds and bassist Michael Pope in a trio and creating a newly composed song on the spot during a open mic/open jam concert, which I also wound up hosting. Can’t really put a price tag that kind of experience, or can you?

“Organizing a dinnertime Wine Glass Orchestra of all the panellists, scientists and artists at the conference led by me, crafts artist Jennifer Crouch, composer Nigel Osborne and neuroscientist Daniel Glaser - that was pure magic and pure science. I practised my arranged beatbox/vocal percussion parts of Mozart’s Divertimento, Movements I and III) in the very house that he was born and later lived in, the Gerburtshaus or Mozart Museum, then held my first classical concert in Salzburg with Romanian pianist Andrei Gologan and performed a reinterpretation of George Gershwin’s Three Preludes on the last night of the conference…”

Asked how he reflected on the experience now, Shodekeh replied: “All I know is that the art and science that exists in everything in a naturally synthesised form needs to be much more illuminated in my everyday, no matter what, as well as the spiritual.”

Artist Rebecca Kamen is Professor Emeritus at Northern Virginia Community College in the US, and has a wealth of experience in collaborative projects with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Harvard University Astrophysics Centre and other scientific research centres across the globe.

She told me by email recently: “Recently retired from college teaching to further develop my art practice, of creating bridges between art and science, has been enriched by this particular Salzburg Seminar. I found it to be an ongoing catalyst for new ideas, seeding many potential projects. Lectures in art and scientific communities, as well as a range of community outreach activities will provide an exciting forum for sharing the richness of the Salzburg seminar experience with others. Upcoming lecture venues in the US include the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, MA, a lecture as part of an art exhibition informing the public about the brain in Sun Valley, ID, and lectures in a variety of public schools in the US as a way for students to experience the significance of what’s possible as a result of bridging art and science. Participating in this session has-been a life-changing and a transformative experience… one that will continue to ripple out to larger audiences impacted by the collaborations seeded during this five-day seminar.”

Malinda McPherson is an MPhil student at Churchill College, Cambridge, who studies the neural processes involved in creative emotional expression and the effects of rhythmic entrainment on the perception of emotion in music –a rare example of someone able to straddle both worlds and take them in her stride.

She reflects on the experience: “The main takeaway that I found from the conference is that neuroscience and art can mingle, but they need to be goal-directed in their mingling. Simply working in proximity is not necessarily sufficient or helpful. There is not always a space for the two to come together - both fields will usually not be equally benefited from their convergence.”

McPherson is one of the participants involved in a new art/science project, A World Without Words, set up in London and launching shortly. It is led by poet and vanguardist, SJ Fowler, whose report on the seminar is well worth reading and includes fellow alumni Noah Hutton and Ben Ehrlich, from New York, who also wrote:Definitions.

Other initiatives springing from the seminar include a salon in New York coinciding with the AGM of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), chaired by participant Anna Abraham (reader in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University) and hosted by fellow participant Harry Ballan, director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (IMNF), also in New Yorm and founded by Oliver Sacks.

Me, I came back to my collaborative project in Cambridge, exploring the potential of the MEG (magnetoencephalography) scanner with neuroscientists as a public engagement project, and had a final session presenting it at the Cambridge Science festival at Addenbrookes Hospital, to a sold-out audience of 100.

We are now making a final film that will summarise the whole project from idea through to public engagement: choosing and designing the experiments, running them and trying to draw some conclusions from the results. I’ve learnt that hard science such as this is often illusory and dependent on so many factors. Despite the pressures of the project, the team has discovered the biting point of all our disciplines and skills, and is now talking with other funders and the university to find ways to continue our work and cross-fertilisation.

I’ve also been invited to participate at the Folkestone Festival of the Brain: Normal?, run by Susanna Howard, director of charity Living Words. Other invitations and potential collaborations are coming in and I’m constantly reading about areas within this bright scientific field to research: scientists I want to engage with and routes to develop projects within. Exciting times in an emergent cross-disciplinary field.

I even found myself this weekend putting on the DVD of The Sound of Music to reminisce about the beauty of the schloss in Salzburg, with its setting in its own extensive grounds, against the lake and with the unterberg mountain behind.

For that week in February, that mountain and lakeside setting was alive with the sound of neuroscientists and artists drinking deep of each other, and from that point are now trying to set the world aflame with active neural connectivity.The film has much more resonance than simply being set in the same venue within the same stunning locale as the seminar; it is about finding the passion and outlets to bring creativity to the fore, inspiring others by being a resilient inspiration oneself.

For the last word on this, I quote ex-neuroscientist, now artist Greg Dunn, who provided the image above. Sadly he wasn’t with us at the seminar, but in an article published in American Scientist in October 2014, on his work and the crossover between the two, he wrote: “ Both art and science arise from our root desires to describe our experience of reality. From this starting point, the artistic and scientific paths diverge. Science describes external reality, about which we share a consensus. Art captures our internal, subjective realities. But the two sides do not always stand apart. My own work can best be described as science/art, not simply because I paint that which scientists study but because I draw evenly from artistic and scientific approaches to capture the essence of the neurons that carry sensations and produce thought.“

Image: Hippocampus medium 1, Greg Dunn, used with kind permission of the artist.

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