How Art Is Crucial To Understanding The Human Mind


Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.

Antonio Damasio, M.D., is a professor of neuroscience and the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. He is a pioneer in the field of cognitive neuroscience and a highly cited researcher. He has received numerous awards for his contributions to the understanding of emotions, feelings and decision-making, and he has described his discoveries in several books.

Walking the halls here at the Brain and Creativity Institute, I see art works from your personal collection, and downstairs there is a theater that is also used as a recording studio. How are you furthering the understanding of the connection between the brain and the arts?

As you come through the lobby, if you turn right, you go toward a laboratory of electrophysiology and a state-of-the-art 3-D MR brain scanner. If you turn left, you go into a small, state-of-the-art auditorium. Its acoustics were designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, who is responsible for the sound of some of the greatest music halls around the world from Tokyo to Hamburg, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall here in LA, a landmark collaboration with Frank Gehry. What we wanted when we created this complex is to literally force people to say, “What an odd combination. Why?”

So here is the answer. On the one hand, we have the most modern form of inquiring into the brain-making mind, and, on the other, we have the oldest. Because when people were beginning to do theater, music and recitations of poetry, say, in an arena in Greece, they were in fact inquiring about the human mind in very probing ways. Great culture — philosophy, theater, music — gave us some of the most remarkable first entries into the human mind. We wanted to have these two approaches together to force those who work here as well as visitors to see that they’re not that different — that the mission we pursue now is not that different from the mission that Sophocles or Aristotle pursued.

We need to bridge the two approaches and keep respecting the achievements of the past. The idea that by just doing neuroscience or advanced cognitive science, one can understand everything about the human mind is ridiculous. We need to bring past efforts in the arts and the humanities into the mix and also use the current contributions of artists and philosophers to understand this most complicated process that is the human mind.

How are you studying music’s effect on the brain?

One study we are doing investigates the effects of intense musical training on the minds and brains of children. This research capitalizes on the existence of El Sistema. This is a program that allows children, from poor neighborhoods starting at age 5, to receive intense music training in the afternoon, after regular school. It began in Venezuela and has had important results. Gustavo Dudamel, the young and famous Venezuelan director of the LA Philharmonic, is a product of El Sistema. Of course, the intent is not to turn the entire population into an active orchestra. The intent is to help develop the mind’s architecture so that it can create citizens.

In Los Angeles, there is one such program and, in close cooperation with the LA Philharmonic and the Youth Orchestra of LA, we proposed to study the brain and mind development of the children involved in the program. We have these marvelous kids that come from the underprivileged Rampart district here in Los Angeles. We began studying 5-year-olds a little over a year ago, and we will accompany them regularly until they are age 11.

We’re finding out how they change in terms of their mental and social abilities. They’re tested, not only for their musical progress, but also for other aspects of cognition, affect and sociality. Their brains are also scanned so that we have a way of relating their mental and behavioral progress to their respective brain structure and function. We will ask numerous questions from the data we gather.

For example, does music training accelerate brain maturation? Does the individual resolve problems better? Is the individual better able to control her environment? Does the training turn impulsive responses into more nuanced responses? Are the perceptual abilities of the child better as a result of having to be attuned to different sounds and pitches?

In order to come to any reasonable conclusion, we need comparison groups. One comparison group comes from exactly the same socioeconomic background. The group is not assigned to music, but to soccer. There is intense athletic training instead of playing in an orchestra. So we hope to be able to check if another activity that is also organized, depends on a team and also requires fine coordination of movement will produce the same results or different results. We expect the study to give us some insight into how the brain handles creativity, and how creativity might influence who you are as a social creature.

Your wife Hanna, who directs the adjoining Dornslife Brain Imaging Center, is studying 3-D images of the brains of great musicians such as Yo Yo Ma. She has joked that the brains are beautiful and even sexy. Are those brains different than everyone else’s?

It’s an intriguing collection of the brains of some of the greatest musicians alive. We do not expect to find something extraordinary and conclude that musician brains are distinctively different from everyone else’s. Natural biological development, education and environment have a huge role to play in the resulting minds and brains.

In fact, I have a suspicion that one of the results of these ongoing studies will be to remove the myth that exceptional and admirable performers achieve what they achieve thanks to some special gift. Many people, provided they have the right training, the right environment, motivation and discipline can achieve professional-caliber performances. A lot of genius comes from great effort.

You have said that emotions and feelings play a central role in high-level reasoning and creativity. Explain.

Sometimes it is tempting to say that feelings get in our way — that if we didn’t have them we would be happier. We wouldn’t have to bother with pain, sadness or even happiness. We’d just carry on like robots. But the reality is that without feelings, one would lose the entry into the world of consciousness. At the simplest level, consciousness begins with “sentience,” which is a building block of feelings.

More complex feelings are the first step in prompting our attempt to solve the problems of the human condition through the invention of appropriate responses. Very early on, for example, human beings — confronted with the pain of others — invented ways of consoling each other. I believe consolation was one of the very early functions of music, tens of thousands of years ago. Music probably started as both an instrument of consolation and an instrument of seduction — both prompted by feelings.

Also, once we understand feelings, we have the possibility of making use of that knowledge for all sorts of medical applications. For example, depression, pain syndromes and drug addictions are all pathologies of feeling. People suffer with depression because they have feelings of sadness and worthlessness. They suffer from drug addiction because of feeling intense desire to use certain substances and because of their inability to cancel that desire. And that’s one of the great problems confronting societies across the globe right now. People keep throwing billions of dollars on the war on drugs. George Soros thinks that trillions have been spent, largely to put people in jail. And yet, the basic biological process behind feeling remains unclear.

The entire history of culture is one of responding to negative and positive feelings with the development of amazing social constructions. These include varied forms of governance, morality, justice systems, belief systems and the arts. The variety of the invention is such that major cultural differences have emerged, especially regarding morality, beliefs and governance. Cultures have not developed a single, uniform way of achieving well-being — of achieving the good life. Note that well-being is itself a feeling state, one in which pain is absent and flourishing dominates.

If people create art to cope with feelings, does it follow that people with extreme feelings create exceptional art?

Pain and joy are two sides of the same coin, without a doubt. A lot of happiness and unhappiness is related to fundamental designs of our structure that pull us in the direction of love, sexuality and happiness — or into aggression, death and suffering. But it doesn’t follow that these forces are symmetrical. I suspect that, in the history of culture, more things that we call great (in poetry, theater, philosophy, music) came out of pain and suffering than came out of happy times.

Some writers have actually said that rectifying their depression left them bereft of inspiration. However, if you have the training and know the craft, chances are you will remember enough of your own pain to find the impetus to continue working, and working well, even after pain subsides. By the way, if you are in extreme pain, your mental organization is impaired, and you are no longer creative. You need to be on the edge.

Antonio Damasio, M.D., is a Dornslife professor of neuroscience and the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.