Are You the Reason it is “Art?”

The reason art moves you might connected to your thinking about yourself. Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

Brain science is uncovering clues on what makes art a moving experience and it is pointing to you. Turns out that when people report having the most moving experiences with art — albeit while inside a machine with powerful magnets whirling around them (an fMRI machine) — they activate their default mode network. That circuit in the brain has been shown to also be activated during self-reflection about oneself, the past, the future, and social relationships. I think of it as the daydream circuit.

This paper, “The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network” is one that goes into the detail of the findings. It is part of a new field of neuroaesthetics that aims to understand why we find things beautiful and moving. It is an integration of psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary theory.

I recently read a related book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science [excerpt here] that goes into the core questions of why we are attracted to art. Eric Kandel points out the importance of the bottom up and top down processing by the brain. Bottom up processes are ones that favor symmetry, certain colors, and shapes. Top down start with culture and ideology and continue through influences of family, peer group and personal experiences.

These are fascinating results coming out of the integration of fields that used to be totally separate. I’m excited to watch this space develop.

Taking the Nature Pill

There is growing evidence that spending time in nature is good for us. I first learned of this research through a Hidden Brain episode, then Mera looked up some of the research for a Whisky Papers, and recently researchers at UMich showed evidence of dosing.

How much nature is enough? The answer was that stress hormones decline a lot after 20-30 minutes but much after that “dose.” (Note: this was a 1st study with small sample size, so it is still, you know, early science. I.e. could be totally wrong) The idea is to get to a recommended dose for a “Nature Pill.” In the study, they took the pill 3 times a week.

This morning I decided to try it out for myself. Instead of working out, I took a slow, mindful walk through Golden Gate Park. It was a tiny stroll. I purposely slowed down. This was not about exercise, I reminded myself. This was about … something else that is also important. Connecting w/ nature and simply being there. What is the experience of nature? What is the experience of me? And of me in nature.

Some things I noticed:

It is hard to disconnect from the mechanical world. In San Francisco, even inside a park, there are sounds of cars, trucks, and rail from the roads only hundreds of meters away. Jets roar overhead. You have to walk into the woods to allow the bird song and crunch of the trail compete with the crunch of the mechanical.

It is hard to disconnect from the information world. I have gotten better about setting borders from info tech and my life, but it was so hard to resist the pull of the smartphone. The early part of my walk was fine — great really. There I was, walking slowly among the trees, the grass, and flowers listening to birds. What were these small birds I saw? They seemed different from the buntings and other small birds I’ve seen in my yard. After about ten minutes, my curiosity turned to a kind of mild anxiety. Couldn’t find out? I have a bird identification app. Surely I could violate my tech border for this. It was something connected to nature after all! I pulled out my phone, fiddled with it a bit and in the process realized that just that small act removed me from the experience. Even the few photos I snapped on my phone pulled me out of the experience of being there.

In the University of Michigan study, subjects were asked not to use their phones while taking their nature “pill” (they also were not allowed conversations or reading). There was no control of people just sitting for 20 minutes without using their phones, reading, or talking. I wonder if that intervention alone can improve stress levels.

The experience of being in nature really is calming. I know this sounds obvious to most people. Yet, I don’t build a nature pill into my week. I bet most people don’t. Today’s experience was enough to convince me. I’m going to try 3-4 days of nature pills into my weekly habits.

Consciousness Everywhere? Or just lots of places…

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski

After years looking into the science of consciousness, it seems to me that consciousness is “everywhere” – or at least in all sorts of unexpected places.

When my father developed dementia many years ago, I became curious about his consciousness as he slipped deeper into an Alzheimer fog. Several years ago I went to a conference, The Science of Consciousness, and since then have read several books related to the topic. The most recent one is “Superminds” by Tom Malone.

Malone summarizes the work in consciousness well by stacking it in a kind of hierarchy from the most basic idea of being conscious to the most esoteric, without venturing into the mystical (or dualistic) level. In other words, there are many ways to define consciousness and we can examine them using the tools of science.

The surprising outcome is we are surrounded by consciousness. It might be more abundant than life itself.

Here are the categories (he summarizes others’ work including “Consciousness” which I’m looking forward to reading):

Awareness. We could define consciousness as simply responding to the world. This is a distinction between being asleep and awake or whether one is under the effect of anesthesia. It also allows for something like a burglar alarm to be defined as conscious. After all, it takes inputs from the world and responds. Recently we’ve found that bacterial masses communicate information among themselves. And we also know that human organizations of all sorts are aware of their world under this definition.

Self-awareness. You might say that awareness is not enough. Well, perhaps the more is needed for consciousness. That an entity needs to be aware of itself and can tell others about itself. You can say you are hungry or confused. Humans can do this. But other animals can as well. Their communications may not be easily understood by us, for example, when a baby bird opens its mouth to signal hunger. And non-living things like my laptop or a car are able to communicate their internal states (charge me up!). Organizations, too, have processes to understand their internal states and communicate them. Consider, for example, financial reporting, as a way to communicate whether a company needs more funding.

Goal-directed behavior. The idea that a baby bird or your laptop is conscious might give you pause. Perhaps you want to define consciousness as taking intention action to achieve a goal. That is the intervention that seems to happen in our heads when we want to change what can seem like being on autopilot. When driving I sometimes find myself driving to the wrong place because, for example, I always drive to the kids’ school in the morning on weekdays. That daily drive could almost be done by a robot. But when I decide I have to drive elsewhere – downtown for a meeting – perhaps that is consciousness? But can we really say that many animals do not have intention when they pursue food, sex, and the other vitals of life? And there is the problem of understanding the intentions of another entity. Can we ever know whether there is intent in the mind of a salmon wanting to swim up river to its spawning spot? For that matter, what happens when TurboTax tries to figure out your taxes? That “intent” was programmed by developers, which in turn was developed collaboratively with the humans inside Intuit, the company that makes TurboTax.

Integrated Information. The evidence from neuroscience is that there are lots of types of information that are integrated during mental states that we associate with consciousness. This fact figures prominently in the Global Workspace Theory of consciousness. We know this happens in mammal brains, but what happens with a plant? Doesn’t it integrate information about sunlight, air, nutrients, and water to grow? I’ve even seen demonstrations of signals passing through plants in response to touch. And of course organizations like Wikipedia integrate information from lots of individual human and software editors to create an article. Perhaps Wikipedia is conscious?

Experience. The experience of being “like” something has been the definition of consciousness that is most widely used by philosophers, especially those who propose that consciousness is a “hard problem, ” most famously framed by philosopher Thomas Nagel asking, “What is it like to be a bat?” Malone walks through an example of how Apple (and most organizations) could be conscious in this way.

The most intriguing direction, though, has been work on Integrated Information Theory. It posits a mathematical description of consciousness that I am still getting my head around. The net output is a quantity, phi, that predicts the degree of consciousness of an animal, a brain, an organization, a circuit, or any information-processing network. It has interesting predictions, including some that are non-intuitive. For example, that if you replayed the neural code of an experience in a brain (assuming you could do that), it would not be consciousness. But that an LED with one bit of memory (a flip flop) has a minimal amount of consciousness. I found these two lectures helpful in understanding the concepts.

So it seems there are lots of systems that can experience consciousness. That experience, though, is not necessarily one we can relate to. What is like to be a flip flop circuit? I don’t know if any human can ever know that experience. Like so many times in our human history, like when we discovered that we are not the center of the universe over and over, the study of consciousness seems to show that human consciousness is not the center of the universe either.

Road Trips and Brain Science

Last week my son and I did a road trip through the Olympic peninsula of Washington state. It was delightful. He created a road trip music playlist with old and new driving songs. It included songs I know like Sympathy for the Devil and songs by Metric. He also had a number of songs I did’t know.

At one point in the drive, he played a podcast of This American Life about Infowars and Alex Jones. I noticed that I got lost in the world of that story. I was drawn into the suspense. I shared the digust and the surprises as I learned of Alex Jones and his anti-christ bullying antics in high school. Every once in a while I would pull away mentally and notice I was no longer in touch with the scene around us. The cliffs, the mist, the lagoons, and the occasional raptor were lost from my awareness.

Listening to the music playlist was a different experience. It was a like a dose of a day dream drug. It tapped into the same feeling I have when purposefully let my thoughts drift. Somehow music enhanced the experience of watching the road go by. The Pacific coast and the trees all seem more interesting and alive.

All this led me to look into the Default Mode Network (DMN) and how it is influenced by music. The DMN is probably the most important “circuit” in the brain that you’ve never heard of. It are activated when you are engaged in self-reflection and empathy. It is also activated when you are day dreaming.

It turns out that, as I suspected, the DMN is deeply engaged when listening to music. Here is an interest snippet of what I learned from a survey article on the topic:

…it was not the genre of music or whether the music had lyrics, but, more important, whether the person liked it, that changed the patterns of brain functional connectivity. Analysis revealed that when a person listens to music he or she prefers, the brain increases connectivity within the Default Mode Network. This supports what people often report: They find themselves considering unsolicited personal thoughts while listening to music that they like. They are essentially ‘looking in’—ruminating on personally relevant memories and emotions—rather than ‘looking out’—paying attention to external events.“Because it is involved in rumination, where new ideas can be formed, it has been suggested that the DMN might influence aspects related to creativity, abstract thought processing, and cognitive flexibility.

How and Why Does Music Move Us?: Answers from Psychology and Neuroscience

OK, so that seems to point to the DMN and daydreaming as connected and triggered by favorite music. What about narrative story-telling?

Well, that also seems to trigger the DMN, according to some studies. Here is a quote from that article:

The default mode network was originally thought to be a sort of autopilot for the brain when it was at rest and shown only to be active when someone is not engaged in externally directed thinking. Continued studies, including this one, suggest that the default mode network actually is working behind the scenes while the mind is ostensibly at rest to continually find meaning in narrative, serving an autobiographical memory retrieval function that influences our cognition related to the past, the future, ourselves and our relationship to others.

So where does that leave us? In the murkiness of science in the process of discovery.

The DMN is plainly a complex thing and we are beginning to decipher what it means for how we think, and how it influences the experience of being a human.