Neuroscience, Performance Art Begin to Play Off Each Other

by Aalok Mehta

July 2, 2009

The thin line between neuroscience and the humanities continues to dissolve as neuroscientists probe the underlying bases of artistic expression and artists commandeer scientific findings to expand performance possibilities. But it’s far too early for the two groups to offer any specific practical advice to each other, according to speakers at the Neuroscience, Memory, and the Performing Arts roundtable.

Leading neuroscientists and tech-savvy creative artists offered insights on how this evolving science is shaping both their interests and their work—and why much remains in the air—during the wide-ranging discussion, held July 1 at the National Academies’ Keck Center in Washington, D.C.

Guy McKhann, M.D., a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, told the audience of about 100 people how technical advancements, in particular functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have given scientists unprecedented access to brains in action. This access has allowed for the study of many kinds of arts-related emotions and activities once thought off limits, he said.

For instance, recent fMRI work by Johns Hopkins researcher Charles Limb on jazz improvisers offers a peek at what happens in the brain when people are being creative, McKhann said. Both Ed Connor, an associate professor at  Johns Hopkins University’s Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute who studies visual perception and object recognition, and colleague and co-panelist Amy Bastian, whose forte is movement, added that they make extensive use of imaging. But the technology still has significant limits, and “we’re still not where we want to be,” McKhann said. [McKhann is a scientific consultant for the Dana Foundation and was an advisor for its three-year, seven university Arts & Cognition consortium.]

Meanwhile, Connor’s comments that our different senses compete with one another—to the extent that sometimes people mix up the location of a visual and auditory stimulus—piqued the interest of dancer-choreographer Jonah Bokaer, whose performance “Replica” had premiered earlier in the day at nearby Sidney Harman Hall. Bokaer said that such neuroscience influences much of his work.

In “Replica,” for instance, the concept of mirror neurons—brain cells that are thought to activate both when someone performs an action and when they observe that action—is embodied through three completely unchoreographed, “blind” portions of the dance. The idea, Bokaer said, is to have one dancer perform and the other mirror those movements, which requires not just reaction but prediction—and required months of practice to pull off. “We wanted to see how to insert a certain level of uncertainty in such a time-based work,” he said.

Bokaer’s earlier work also embodies this playfulness, which has him acting like a scientist by probing the limits of human perception and ability. In one performance that took place in an airplane hangar, for example, he used echolocators, devices that measure distance using the echoes of sounds, to create a real-time soundtrack matched to the dancers’ movements. In others, he employs a form of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which, in another context, is a controversial psychotherapeutic tool for processing difficult memories.

 “I try to reorient the way we move and the way we learn movement ... in relationship with contemporary technologies,” Bokaer said. “I want to build environments in which movement can happen in unusual ways.”

Audience members eager to learn more about this blurring between the science and the humanities asked several questions of the panelists and moderator Kevin Finneran, editor of the National Academies journal Issues in Science and Technology. Their interests ranged from information about the placebo effect to new possibilities for treating depression and stroke. But many, including several student actors, were disappointed to hear that practical changes in the arts will be a long time coming.

“We’re just at the beginning of the field of neuroaesthetics,” Connor said. “You have to give us time. It takes a long time to take something we learn at the neural level and apply it to something as complicated as acting.”