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Label: science

Friday 21st October 2016Art, Emotion and Neurobiology

You might remember a post from earlier this year about museum pranks, and a case of mistaken identity. A pair of ordinary eyeglasses were left on the ground near a blank wall in an art gallery, and patrons automatically assumed that they were some piece of modern conceptual artwork, even going to so far as to carefully photograph the piece.

According to a recent study by researchers at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, there's a very good reason for this hilarious misunderstanding: the way we perceive ordinary objects changes on a neurological level when we are told that they are 'art'.

Noah van Dongen, one of the researchers conducting the study at Erasmus University, explained some of the results of the study: "When we think we are not dealing with reality, our emotional response appears to be subdued on a neural level. This may be because of a tendency to 'distance' ourselves from the image, to be able to appreciate or scrutinize its shapes, colours, and composition instead of just its content. We know that our brains may have evolved with 'hard-wired' mechanisms that allow us to adjust our response to objects depending on the situation."

"What this work indicates, is that Kant's two century old theory of aesthetics, where he proposed that we need to emotionally distance ourselves from the artwork in order to be able to properly appreciate it, might have a neurological basis and that art could be useful in our quest to understand our brain, emotions, and maybe our cognition," van Dongen continued.

Interestingly enough, the study went on to explore whether or not these effects could be replicated when study participants were shown examples of still images and told that they were from either typical films or documentary films. When the images were labelled as from a documentary film, the neurological changes were reversed, indicating that the role of context in assessing our emotional reaction to imagery is more powerful than anticipated.

On reflection, though, it seems that a lot of this kind of information is already well known to critical theorists and philosophers, and that perhaps the world of neurobiology would be much better off taking a more interdisciplinary approach to problems of cognition - or at least that science students would benefit dramatically from a broader range of philosophy coursework than is currently common.

Posted on October 21st 2016 on 06:27pm

Monday 02nd November 2015Bacterial Art

We seem to have something of a fascination with unconventional media in the art world. Whether it's because we're driven by a conceptual desire for reimagining the way we see art or simply because we like to be unconventional for its own sake is up for debate, as many artists are rebels and rabble-rousers from day one (thankfully!). As it turns out, artists aren't the only ones with this drive.

The relationship between science and art has always been somewhat tense, with active proponents of both the differences and the similarities between the two, but recently scientists held a first of its kind art contest that around some curiosity throughout the art world. Dubbed somewhat unimaginatively the 'Agar Art Project', it featured projects that were entirely created with bacteria to create their forms.

The contest itself was named after the growth medium used to culture the bacteria. Agar is a clear, glutinous substance that provides all the nutrients that the bacteria need to grow. Petri dishes are filled with the stuff, and various bacterial cultures are introduced and allowed to grow and propagate. The control of exactly where they grow varies, but given the typical growth patterns of each species, it's possible to create some rather amazing imagery. To cap it all, the entire thing is then sealed in resin to preserve it from any kind of degradation.

"All the scientists that I work with, all agree that there is a sense of aesthetics in our work and how we present our work. It is difficult to do and appreciate without art," said Mehmet Berkmen of New England Biolabs, a research firm located in the United States. He should know, considering that his collaborative piece with artist Maria Penil entitled 'Neurons' won first prize in the competition as voted by a panel of judges, and another of their collaborative entries won the people's choice section of the contest by receiving the highest number of 'Likes' and shares on Facebook.

While they do a huge amount to popularize science, many in the art community were quick to point out that it wasn't really "art" in the high-brow, high-minded sense of the word, but rather some pretty images. Such arguments tend to come off as snobby and downright rude, but there is something to what they say. Yes, it's an interesting medium to work in, and yes it has some social value if it causes people to re-examine their perceptions of science, but at the end of the day its conceptual value (and some would say its aesthetic value) is somewhat thin.

Posted on November 02nd 2015 on 07:22pm

Friday 08th May 2015Create for Your Health

As every creative person knows, there is a deep sense of satisfaction and well-being that comes from the act of creation. Whether it's a reaction to the catharsis many people achieve from creating or the simple fact of having added to the beauty in the universe, it's impossible to deny that creating makes us feel better, brings light to dark days and helps us deal with our emotions and experiences. It turns out that there is a solid scientific base for this perception, as opposed to the purely anecdotal evidence that every artist has.

In the last couple of years, some important and pioneering research has been conducted by scientists around the world on the measurable neurological impact of art. Without going into the admittedly slightly tedious details of the various studies, we can still identify how to benefit from the results they identified. One study, which compared the neurological changes experienced by two groups of people – one group created art, and the other discussed it at length in a museum environment – found that participants who created various pieces of artwork over a 10 week period had significantly increased the density of their neural pathways in certain areas of the brain, while the group that merely discussed artwork experienced no changes. Specifically, the areas of the brain that benefited from the creation process were related to emotional awareness and 'psychological resilience', which is to say that it made them better able to cope with stress and made them feel much happier.

Naturally, every artist has experienced this at some point in their artistic career, but it's nice to have some solid scientific backing for your personal experiences, especially about issues as complicated as neurology. It doesn't matter whether or not your art is your entire life or just something you dabble in, it's nice to have a body of evidence that proves how beneficial it is. Not that we need it, of course!\

So the next time you find yourself feeling stressed out or a bit overwhelmed by life in general, it's probably a good idea to find some time to create. If you ever find yourself a bit of a loose end, take – or make – the time to do a little creating, and protect yourself against future stress while creating something that you can be proud of. If you're stuck for ideas, why not take a look through our inspiration and project idea posts to get inspired? Just explore the tags on the right.  

Posted on May 08th 2015 on 04:04pm

Wednesday 25th June 2014Art and Your Brain

Recently during my regularly-scheduled browse through the deep dark wonders of the world of internet-based news, I ran across an article that was entitled 'Our Brains Are Made for Enjoying Art'. Supposedly, something in the way our brains had evolved made us wired to appreciate art, and this had somehow been proven in a recent meta-study (for those of you unaware, a meta-study is a study that looks at the results of other studies - a study of studies, in other words). Intrigued, I clicked through, and discovered that what had actually happened was the laziest kind of art journalism.
Art and science fascinate the public, and rightly so - they are the pinnacles of the capacities of the human mind. The problem, of course, comes from the fact that those same people are so desensitised by the media that every headline has to be attention-grabbing in order to succeed, regardless of whether or not it actually deserves to. As a result, we wind up with journalism about art and science that is often written by people who don't understand either of these things, but rather focused on getting headlines.

It doesn't really take a genius to figure out that something fishy is going on with this story, however. Art is inherently an abstraction, after all - not capital-a Abstract, but rather inherently a representation of something else. Even the most perfectly accurate photo is, as Magritte taught us with his famous pipe, simply a representation of the thing photographed. Even as we have evolved to appreciate various elements of the world around us, and the concepts and symbolic ideas that can truly be said to be innately human creations, it should be no surprise that we react similarly to the representations of those things.

In other words, saying that our brains evolved to appreciate art is similarly inane to saying that we evolved to appreciate the world around us. Of course we did. The problem is one of causality, and that's something that lazy journalism often gets wrong, frustratingly more and more frequently in the age of viral memetics and rapid information sharing. The difference, of course, is that the world was here long before we were, whereas art is a creation of ours. We can't possibly have evolved to adapt to one of our own creations, as we haven't been making art long enough. Perhaps in a hundred thousand years…

Posted on June 25th 2014 on 05:38pm
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