Thursday, 6 January 2011

“Science has to catch up to art”

Sticking with the science theme started in my last post, Ted.com just posted this video of Charles Limb talking about some preliminary research into what happens when musicians creatively improvise in an fMRI scanner:


It’s interesting…ish but somehow comes across as a rather naïve attempt to split atoms with an elaborate vacuum cleaner. So far the findings are pretty meager, to say the least, and the questions based on these are very unenlightening:

Just for the fun of it, let’s make a cursory stab at providing some answers to these questions (without the aid of an expensive bunch of wires, magnets and electricity of course):
1: What is creative genius?
Extremely open minded focus.

2: Why does the brain seek creativity?
Because it’s pleasurable, solves problems and has a selection advantage.

3: How do we acquire creativity?
It’s in our genes, but is often inhibited and/or underdeveloped (see next question)

4: What factors disrupt creativity?
Stress, fear, distraction, poverty etc and in some cases their opposites ie: affluence, success, achievement etc (and possibly lying down in fMRI scanners)

5: Can creative behavior be learned?
I've argued in the past that the answer should be Yes, but to a degree this depends on what we mean by “creative” and “learned” and also on not getting too fussy about the difference between "creative behavior" (as the question asks) and creative ability (which seems likely to be influenced by a whole wealth of factors).
And lastly, if creativity behaves in any way differently when you're lying down as opposed to when you're standing up (as anger does1) then the whole experiment will need to be repeated.

Hmm, it seems like there are probably better uses for an fMRI scanner at this time. Perhaps in the future, with finer instrumentation, better data gathering techniques and more sophisticated questions we might actually get some useful information. But despite this, I’m reminded of something Richard Feynman said about thinking processes and the ways thoughts are generated by different individuals.


This is extraordinary from a couple of perspectives: 1: the contestation of genius and 2: the evidence of, not exactly learning styles2 as such, but different cognitive functioning leading to the same result but involving different cognitive load and therefore having differential influence on other cognitive functions (it relates closely to what is called "The Split Attention Effect"3). If Feynman was right, and there seems little reason to doubt it, then the hope of finding a neurological formula for creativity seems likely to be fanciful at best.

External References:
1: The Split Attention Effect
2: Learning Styles
3: Anger behaves differently in fMRI whilst lying down as opposed to standing up.


13 comments:

Seán said...

Limb's a head and neck surgeon-you'd have thought that both he and the scanner could have been better used. Feynemann OTOH was a physicist.

There no reason to think either of them know dick about these questions, and in science there's always reason to doubt.

This Brazen Teacher said...

Sean: Explain what you were speaking of when you said "better used?"


Franz Marc once said: “The art that is coming will give formal expression to our scientific conviction” (Jung, 1964, p. 261). Perhaps the reverse is also true, perhaps our science, might give language to our art. Perhaps science is now providing humanity with a quantifiable language that defines what the arts, the subjective, the mysterious, and the unconscious Self actually do. If there is anything that art education struggles to do, it is to provide quantifiable evidence of its purpose. A discipline that struggles to prove what it does is a subject that is met with skepticism.

The above was from one of the final papers I wrote last semester. My interest in Science and Art is pervasive, so this post excited me!

J. Hamlyn said...

@Sean
True. Feynman, to his credit, would probably agree, indeed he says as much in the video. I guess Limb is attempting to cast some of the doubt aside which is no bad thing in principle. It's just that I'm not convinced that what he has come up with warrants a Ted Talk or that the method is appropriate or even that the goal has been thoroughly thought through. Certainly the questions raised skirt the real issue which seems to be a bigger question about whether genius is hard wired. If so then at what stage does it become so and what best can we do to cultivate it?

This Brazen Teacher said...

I disagree when Feynman says there is no such thing as talent. Do you agree with that sentiment?

Seán said...

@Jim - I dunno. That Feynemann was almost as bad as Chomsky with his opinions on everything. In science all is doubt until we have facts-casting aside doubt without facts is not progress.

There's a lot of bad neuroscience out there, and a lot of nonsense on TED, as we have discussed previously.

@TBT - Jung was a hallucinating religious nutjob, who didn't know a thing about science, and Marc was a printmaker. If you want to explore the art/science boundary, I suggest you look elsewhere.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Brazen,
I do agree with Feynman yes. I’m really uneasy about ascribing talent to individuals when, in my experience, the word is most often used by people to describe an ability in others that comes from we know not where. It’s another way of saying that we believe such abilities are innate and therefore things we can do little to influence. It’s the old nature/nurture debate, and for all that some people may be predisposed towards some things rather than others I think as teachers we have to tread very carefully when distinguishing between individuals on the basis of assumptions about what lies at the heart of these abilities. Once again, the idea of innate ability - and genius for that matter - takes an uncertainty about other peoples developmental experience and raises it to the level of theory. Just because we have difficulty understanding how some individuals get to be good at something on the basis of what appears to be very limited experience or practice doesn’t mean that we should jump to conclusions about the causes. It’s great that so many people are trying to gain a deeper understanding of creative ability if only to dispel some of the many damaging myths. I’m just not sure that this particular fMRI study is really adding much to the debate.

This Brazen Teacher said...

Sean... OK we disagree on Jung... But when you said "better used" in your first comment, what would have been a better use of the fMRI scanner?

J. Hamlyn and Sean... I respect the healthy skepticism that scientists (and both of you) have about this study.

I think Jung was considered by some as a "religious nut job" because he tried to do something that's very hard to do- create a quantifiable case for very un-quantifiable things.

Science was seen by the Greeks as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and the Arts were seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects.

How does one create a scientific case for invisible, internal, hidden objects? Not easily. And if you read Dawkins, Susskind and other theoretical physicists, they are beginning to say things equally as "nutso" as Jung- and they are far from religious fanatics.

Some things are undeniably real even in the absence of Scientific proof. Most people would have a really hard time reducing the feeling of "love" for example- to the mechanistic idea that it's merely chemical reactions in our brains. What do you think? Could this also be said for talent? Similarly I think Scientists who try to explain love any other way probably seem irrelevant at this point, because they lack quantifiable data.

I think there's a worship of the quantifiable in science, and a worship of the mysterious in art... and both would benefit from learning a bit from the other.

J. Hamlyn said...

For me it’s a distinction between mystery and mysticism (which is where I tend to agree with Sean on Jung). I’m quite happy with the mystery of love, I just get edgy when someone tries to tell me that some people have a greater capacity for love than others. The same goes for talent.

Seán said...

@TBT-A better use of a surgeon and a really expensive bit of diagnostic medical kit would have been in saving lives.

I think the art/science boundary lies on and beyond the boundary of engineering, not in the realm of metaphysical speculation, which is way over into Art.

Interestingly, me and Jim are both involved in a common product - we both design water features. So there's a boundary where art and science meet, in the production of artefacts.

Trading the pronouncements of authorities as both you and Jim do so well is not part of science. Making stuff as you both do is however potentially usefully informed by science and engineering. The bigger the artefact,the more likely you need the help of an engineer.

What can science learn from art? Not much, though scientists can learn much as people.

I see you like things a bit "spiritual", TBT, with your Jung and your Chopra.

If spirituality means anything other than stealth religion, it addresses the subjective experience of what it is to be you. Isn't that what art is about?

Science on the other hand does not need more spirituality, but less. No more nonsense about discovering what consciousness is, no more "physics porn",(philosophising by theoretical physicists with no grasp of reality).

On the "talent" front, these arguments come back ultimately to Dweck's studies, which are plentiful, but noone else very tried to replicate them, so they are only partly tested.

Is it true that there is no such thing as talent, and it's all down to hard graft? Answering this question would require us to obtain a definitive answer to the nature nurture controversy - Good luck with that.

My understanding of the scientific position on this is that there is quite possibly a genetic component, but that there's no substitute for hard work and persistence.

But this isn't the real question for educators- the real question is- whether it is true or not, is believing this to be true the best possible attitude for a student with respect to outcomes? Isn't this a yes?

J. Hamlyn said...

Without a doubt. Dweck is a good reference point in that regard. She was in the news a lot a few years ago, I remember, when her advocacy for focussing on praising kids for hard work rather than for being clever caused a minor storm in school education and parenting (particularly in the US). The basic premise is that learners attributions of fixed ability lead kids (but likely all learners) to become risk averse and to focus on “proving themselves rather that improving themselves”. If we get kids to see that it’s hard work that helps them succeed then the results show marked improvement.
But my uneasiness around the idea of talent is not just that it’s detrimental to student development, as per Dweck, but also that teachers can tend to treat students preferentially on the basis of assumptions of differential ability (talent) and then we’re onto the old Pygmalion Effect.

J. Hamlyn said...

Just published today:
“In applying mathematical models to Dante’s hell, he argues, Galileo was laying the groundwork for what would become theoretical physics. […]
Galileo, a notorious contrarian, would likely have appreciated Peterson’s theory, which goes against everything we think we know about this stony rationalist. It also contradicts the notion — dearly held by practitioners of the humanities and sciences alike — that fact is fact, art is art, and never the twain shall meet, at least not in any meaningful way. As Peterson likes to point out, in Galileo’s time no such division existed. ‘Galileo’s thought,” he says, “[drew] directly on the kind of imagination that we associate with the arts.’”

http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/01/09/measuring_hell/?page=full

Seán said...

Peterson is really a mathematician, rather than a scientist. Judging by his personal web page, pointless, groundless speculative philosophising in the style and subject areas of the liberal arts/ humanities seems to be his speciality.

Whoever said "art is art and science is science and ne'er the twain shall meet"? What nonsense! Both biologists and engineers draw, and engineers make some of the same things artists make.

This article is an unconvincing demolition of a straw man.

J. Hamlyn said...

Ha Ha I knew you'd like (!) that one Sean. The bit that really got me was: "In fact, Peterson adds, if Galileo hadn’t given himself over to the “triumph of artifice and imagination” of the poetry he loved, he would never have achieved the insights that shaped the Scientific Revolution, and by extension the modern world." As if we'd never have the modern world if it weren't for the fact that Galileo liked poetry. It's like saying that we'd never have E=MC² if it weren't for Einstein. It might have taken a bit longer but someone would have worked it out.
Still, I liked the idea (evidence even) that hard science can be borne out of putting art to the test.

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