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Health & Science

What Do Our Brains Look Like When Art Gets Involved?

An ongoing study at the University of Houston is addressing the effect of creativity on the brain. In Part Two of the story, Amy Bishop decides to donate her mind to science.

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In the lobby of the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, I'm in the process of becoming a living Medusa. Squeezed over my head is a tightly-fitted cap, resembling the kind you see swimmers wear. Dangling from it are 64 wires, each attached to an electrode. They'll monitor what's going on up there as I stroll around the museum gallery and check out the art.

Research assistants Anastasiya Kopteva and Andrew Paek are in the process of applying gel to my head to make the electrodes stick. At last, all the lights on the cap have turned green, meaning we have contact.

Picture of Amy Bishop and Anastasiya Kopteva
In the lobby of the Blaffer Art Museum, UH research assistant Anastasiya Kopteva applies gel to the 64 electrodes as prep for the EEG

A tablet computer showing my brain waves in little squiggly lines hangs around my neck, accessorized with a fanny pack holding the various other tech gear. The ensemble is complete with a small camera clipped to the front of my shirt. That'll let researchers know what art piece I'm looking at when they go back to examine the results.

"So, what's next?" I ask Kopteva.

"Let's view art," she answers.

Picture of Amy Bishop in EEG cap
Amy Bishop during the “Brain on Art” EEG at the Blaffer Art Museum

And through the museum I go, followed closely by Kopteva and Paek, who are pushing a cart with a laptop behind me. I ask Paek what's with up the laptop.

"We get electricity from your brain, we send it wireless, (and) our computer picks it up," he said.

At one point, I stop to check my tablet and ask Paek if there's any way to draw conclusions from the data so far. Can we notice any trends?

"Um, no," he laughs. Apparently, it's a little more complicated than that.

Fast forward two weeks.

Getting the EEG results involves a trip over to Dr. Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal's lab inside the University of Houston Engineering School. At a large square table, we're staring a screen on the wall, which has images of my 64 EEG channels projected onto it.

But at this point, making sense of exactly what all those squiggly lines mean is an intricate process.

"And so what we do first is clean the signal from anything that's not related to the task," Contreras-Vidal explains. "That includes eye blinks and eye movements."

Which, in turn, involves the tedious task of combing through the data and removing the unneeded material, referred to as "artifacts." Once those artifacts are removed, they're left with pure brain activity.

So what about that flickering projector installation piece that I had a particular attachment to? What was my brain doing at that moment?

"That's the visual cortex," Contreras-Vidal says, pointing to a red section at the back of my head. "So you see that there's a bump in the bottom plot around 11 hertz. That means the brain activity of your visual cortex is oscillating around 11 hertz."

Which doesn't tell us a whole lot.... Yet. But when researchers start looking at data from hundreds of people – then thousands – they start to notice trends.

"We know that that part of your brain is active and we want to see how that activation relates to other areas in the brain," he says. "How the information travels and how long it takes to get there is important."

One of his hopes is to inform the clinical neuroscience field about how best to use art to treat neurological and mental disorders. It's a long-term project uniting fields that aren't often linked.

"This is really work that's at the interface between the arts, science and engineering. Studying creativity, studying how the brain perceives art – and how we can use that to push science and engineering," he said.

Next on the horizon is an international conference this summer in Cancun. It'll include some of the world's thought-leaders in neuroscience, engineering, education, and medicine.

  • Sample brain wave recording or electroencephalography (EEG). The raw (unprocessed) EEG signals show voltage fluctuations due to neural brain activity, facial muscle activation, eye blinks, and external noise. The spikes at 2.1s and 3.2s are characteristic eye-blinks. (right) To isolate brain activity from the undesired noise, the EEG signals were cleaned by filtering unwanted components representing the noise. (Photo Credit: University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering )
    Sample brain wave recording or electroencephalography (EEG). The raw (unprocessed) EEG signals show voltage fluctuations due to neural brain activity, facial muscle activation, eye blinks, and external noise. The spikes at 2.1s and 3.2s are characteristic eye-blinks. (right) To isolate brain activity from the undesired noise, the EEG signals were cleaned by filtering unwanted components representing the noise. (Photo Credit: University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering )
  • (left) EEG recordings filtered between 8 and 13 Hz (alpha). (right) EEG recordings filtered between 32 and 40 Hz (gamma). (Photo Credit: University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering )
    (left) EEG recordings filtered between 8 and 13 Hz (alpha). (right) EEG recordings filtered between 32 and 40 Hz (gamma). (Photo Credit: University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering )
  • A sample section of EEG activity is shown, for different frequency bands.  (Photo Credit: University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering)
    A sample section of EEG activity is shown, for different frequency bands. (Photo Credit: University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering)
  • Slow alpha brain waves (patterned waveforms changing between 8 to 13 times per second), normally seen during idling behavior, are thought to be suppressed during concentration and artistic appreciation. The relative power of alpha waves during eyes-closed, relative to eyes-open, is shown for different areas of the brain, with yellow corresponding to larger amplitude alpha waves. (left) When the subject has her eyes closed, the neural signals in the visual area (back) of her brain oscillate with higher amplitude due to idling in the absence of visual input. (right) The visual (back of head) and decision making areas (front of head) of the brain 'wake-up' when she is perceiving, evaluating, and interpreting a work of art.  (Photo Credit: University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering)
    Slow alpha brain waves (patterned waveforms changing between 8 to 13 times per second), normally seen during idling behavior, are thought to be suppressed during concentration and artistic appreciation. The relative power of alpha waves during eyes-closed, relative to eyes-open, is shown for different areas of the brain, with yellow corresponding to larger amplitude alpha waves. (left) When the subject has her eyes closed, the neural signals in the visual area (back) of her brain oscillate with higher amplitude due to idling in the absence of visual input. (right) The visual (back of head) and decision making areas (front of head) of the brain 'wake-up' when she is perceiving, evaluating, and interpreting a work of art. (Photo Credit: University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering)
  • Faster gamma brain waves (oscillating at 32 to 40 times per second) have also been observed during aesthetic appreciation. Gamma waves are thought to represent local computations among groups of neurons. Compared to the eyes closed condition were most brain areas are idling (left), gamma waves across left-frontal areas of the brain increase as the subject is experiencing a work of art (right).   (Photo Credit: University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering)
    Faster gamma brain waves (oscillating at 32 to 40 times per second) have also been observed during aesthetic appreciation. Gamma waves are thought to represent local computations among groups of neurons. Compared to the eyes closed condition were most brain areas are idling (left), gamma waves across left-frontal areas of the brain increase as the subject is experiencing a work of art (right). (Photo Credit: University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering)

*Click the ‘i’ for more information about each slide above.

Read Part One: University Of Houston Brain Study Explores Intersection Of Art And Science

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