At the EDGE of Neuroscience and Art

Alex Masurovsky

In this corner, a skeptical, data-driven approach to understanding the brain, with a tradition of doing everything possible to remove subjectivity; in the other, an expressive medium, where the feelings of the artist and the viewer are of chief importance.

Are these two disciplines on the same team?

Ian Stewart at EDGE seems to think so: “I think more and more we are appreciating the idea that you can take your own subjective experience as a valid starting point for data collection, that it’s worth paying attention to. I think a lot of artists would consider themselves scientists in that sense.”

He is not the only one. Ian is joined by three others who are heavily involved in both neuroscience and art as the founders of EDGE, an organization that bills itself as “an interdisciplinary and multinational collective and educational platform focused on the unique fusion of neuroscience and art.” Ian studies proprioception in mice for his PhD and spends his free time making soundscapes and focusing on science communication. Corinna Kühnapfel, who studied cognitive science for her Bachelor, is writing her Master’s thesis on empirical aesthetics [for a program called Cognitive Science – Embodied Cognition]. Amy Young, a Charité Medical Neurosciences master’s alumnus, believes in facilitating citizen science and has taken part in planning events for UNESCO, Hacking Health and educational theater productions. Tatiana Lupashina recently completed her master’s in the electrophysical properties of visual processing, also at the Charité’s Medical Neurosciences program, and creates sculptural art pieces in her free time.

I caught up with Ian for lunch at Mensa Nord and a coffee at Café Luisa to hear what he had to say about the connection between art and neuroscience.

EDGE Exhibition 2019

How did EDGE get started?

The core concept that we came from originally was that there is so much art in neuroscience that it would be nice to share it. We [the founders of EDGE] were impressed by what our colleagues and friends do in their free time. Through the art we are seeing each other’s perspectives on neuroscience. That ranges from photos of lab setups to paintings of personal experiences with different psychiatric disorders. Tatiana Lupashina and Hamish Logan made this hologram of the brain. There is this human side to the scientist that really came through in their work.

Historically we’ve had one big exhibition per year, the annual exhibition in late summer. The one in 2018 was the first ever. It was a few days, open to the public, with exhibitions, Q and A’s, talks and tours integrated as well.

To get people involved who’s work we appreciated, but who didn’t necessarily want to be part of an exhibition, we started doing these workshops once or twice a month at this space in Neukölln called Top. That’s typically 20-30 people, taking a lot of time to go in depth on a particular topic with a particular invited guest. And that’s been really nice and successful.

How, again, do art and neuroscience connect?

We study natural processes that have this natural aesthetic. That’s where art as a field really excels — how do you convey complicated or invisible topics? Historically it focused on how you convey emotion, philosophy, history and documentation, and now, real scientific knowledge and understanding. How do you get people who don’t study neuroscience to understand what we know about the brain?

At the AI music workshop we had, the idea came up that music is a way to probe the brain, or to probe us. Music is written around these intrinsic rules that are hard to quantify, so we explore musical space from our own subjective experience. In cognitive neuroscience, this is taken as a valid way to dive into and disentangle anything about psychology or neuroscience. The whole point of neuroscience, in a way, is to study the brain, which is fundamental to life and our experience of it. There’s a bit of neuroscience in everything.

We think art is nice because it has this methodological approach. Where as science is just about furthering knowledge, art asks how do we share what we know, how do we communicate it, how do we conceptualize it, how do we experience it. Then you can apply neuroscience to art, not just to communicate the science, but make the art a bit more realistic or in-depth.

“Why are we creative?” EDGE meetup event at >top in the Neukölln neighborhood of Berlin

So a big part of this is science communication?

For us, we were thinking about, how can get people into neuroscience without having to teach them about microbiology or electricity, how can you skip the university degrees you need to really understand what the concepts are to start talking to people about it no matter what background they have. I think that’s one major goal of EDGE.

Typically you have science and science journalism separate, but now the researchers themselves are much more motivated to communicate. Maybe art is a particularly effective way to do that.

We have this scheme for art and science communication where you go from very specialized to opening up gradually to the public. So the workshops represent kind of the second step: we’ve taken the science out of the lab and we’ve taken the artists who are interested in neuroscience and put them together in a room where they can kind of make plans for how to really conceptualize it as an art piece.

There are a number of scientists interested in making art but don’t have the technical know-how, and a lot of artists who have the interest in science, but not the detailed knowledge they would like to integrate it into their world.

Where might science and art clash?

Science gets this reputation as cold and objective, trapped in the ivory tower. I met a video filmmaker who went off about scientists taking all of the romance out of the world. He was happy to romanticize filmmakers as these great poets of everyday life, but then condemns scientists as the exact opposite force, the anti-creative force. I felt like it was about “don’t explain the world because it makes the world less interesting.” If you know what rain is, does that make rain less cool? I would say it makes rain way cooler.

I think it’s only less interesting if you have to dumb it down. For example, creationism versus the big bang, the story “God made the universe” has kind of a narrative depth to it, whereas the “universe came from nothing” is kind of an anticlimax. But that’s not the level of detail that really anyone works in. There is so much more detail to the story of the big bang. That’s true of any field of science: People continuously research more and more. It actually gets more and more interesting the more you get into it.

Do you have any examples of neuroscience and art working together?

We have a really exciting thing coming up in March, which is Brain Awareness Week. A piece is being developed by Ashley Middleton, who’s working with an international team with whom she’s developed a sensory feedback system, whereby you visualize brain data and transform it into music and video, and the perception of the music and video will effect a brain state change. So there’s this interflow between what you’re perceiving and what you’re experiencing. And that’s really interesting to us because it’s achieving what we think is fascinating about neuroscience art. On the one hand you’re kind of getting people to experience the current state of neuroscience, and you can present a lot of high level concepts in an understandable way, and also an interactive way. You’re also maybe developing something that is likely to provide new insight into what we understand about the brain.

What we want to do is put on a themed exhibition on particular research topics with institutes and labs, where labs are working with us to communicate their science, in a way that achieves a lot of their aims in communication and public outreach. I think the future for EDGE is that we have a community that we keep alive and that we keep inspired.

Learn more about EDGE at https://edge-neuro.art.


Erratum:
An earlier version stated that Corinna Kühnapfel studied art for her Bachelor’s degree. She studied cognitive science. Tatiana built the brain sculpture with Hamish Logan (not Amy). Ashley’s last name, Middleton, was initially left out.

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