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Your Brain on Art: Symposium Examines The Science of the Arts

October 13, 2010

Consider your reaction to a piece of art, whether it is Monet’s “Water Lilies,” Led Zepellin’s rock anthem, “Stairway to Heaven” or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. How do they make you feel? And more to the point, what message is your brain sending and receiving that allows you to experience the soul-soothing tranquility of the painting, the heart-pounding rhythm of Jimmy Page’s signature guitar solo or the enduring organic lines of Wright’s Western Pennsylvania creation?

For centuries, philosophers have speculated about the links between beauty, human perception, creativity and pleasure. In recent years, scientists have learned a great deal about sensory systems and human response to the visual world, three-dimensional space, sound, touch, taste and smell.

To further explore these ideas, the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute will host a two-day public symposium titled, “The Science of the Arts: Perceptual Neuroscience and Aesthetics” on Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 20 and 21 at the American Visionary Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Developed by the Brain Science Institute in collaboration with the Walters Art Museum, the event will gather renowned brain researchers, artists, educators, historians, architects, choreographers, composers and curators for a series of six conversations about the creative process and the basic science underlying aesthetics and beauty.

Sculptor David Hess is among the distinguished participants who include jazz musician Pat Metheny, the BSO’s Marin Alsop, architect Tom Kundig, painter William Stoehr, pianist Leon Fleisher and Gary Vikan of the Walters Art Museum. Photo: Courtesy of the Brain Science Institute

Sculptor David Hess is among the distinguished participants who include jazz musician Pat Metheny, the BSO’s Marin Alsop, architect Tom Kundig, painter William Stoehr, pianist Leon Fleisher and Gary Vikan of the Walters Art Museum. Photo: Courtesy of the Brain Science Institute

The symposium will allow participants to share information on how the brain processes, responds to and creates art. According to John “Jack” Griffin, director of the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute, the study of perceptual neuroscience and aesthetics is a hot topic that has drawn increased attention, though the field remains in its early infancy.

“This sense of perception, and the pleasure or reward it brings, is so fundamentally human that it deserves rigorous investigation,” Griffin says. “This event will let us take stock of where we stand in the field, what can be done and where it will go in the future.”

Jon Hamilton, NPR arts and science correspondent, will serve as moderator for the six collaborative conversations. Speakers include jazz musician Pat Metheny; Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; painter William Stoehr; Leon Fleisher, pianist and Peabody Institute faculty member; award-winning architect Tom Kundig; sculptor David Hess; and prominent faculty members from Johns Hopkins and other universities.

Speakers will explore how sensory systems operate, how people might come to define their perception of what is meaningful and how these perceptions take on the emotional value and cultural associations that form aesthetic experiences. For example, audiences generally reviled Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring when it premiered, but years later listeners grew to respect and appreciate the beauty in the work’s innovative and complex rhythmic structures. What happened culturally in the intervening years to make the work accepted?

The event’s participants will examine, among other topics, the power of faces and the human form to ignite emotional response and the role of form and function in architecture.

On Oct. 20, the American Visionary Art Museum’s James Rouse Visionary Center will host four talks on visual art and color, neural mechanisms of musical improvisation, spatial representation and architecture, and harmonic representation and musical pitch. The day ends with a cocktail reception and tour of the museum’s “What Makes Us Smile?” exhibition led by museum director and founder Rebecca Hoffberger and neuroscientist Solomon Snyder of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

On Oct. 21, the Baltimore Museum of Art will host the final two talks, whose topics are motor system and dance, and form perception and design. The symposium concludes with a 10-person panel discussion titled “The Future of a New Field: Questions, Directions and Debate,” moderated by Griffin and WYPR journalist Tom Hall. The panelists are Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum; Semir Zeki, a professor at University College, London; Michael Hersch, chair of the Composition Department at the Peabody Institute; Steven Hsiao, professor of neuroscience at the School of Medicine; James Olson, of Olson Kundig Architects; John Eberhard, founding president of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture; Michael Miller, the Herschel and Ruth Seder Professor of Biomedical Engineering and director of the Center of Imaging Science in the Whiting School of Engineering; Mary Ann Mears, an artist and member of the board of directors of the Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance; Barbara Landau, the Dick and Lydia Todd Professor and chair of the Department of Cognitive Science in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences; and Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine.

“Hopkins neuroscientists were the pioneers in the study of sensory perception starting with Vernon Mountcastle, so it is only appropriate we take up the issue of how art affects brain function and can evoke such powerful emotional responses,” says Richard Huganir, director of Neuroscience at the School of Medicine and co-director of the Brain Science Institute.

The Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute was created in 2007 to foster innovative research programs in basic neuroscience discovery, new treatments for brain-based diseases and translational research through interdisciplinary collaborative approaches.

Registration for the two-day symposium is free for Johns Hopkins students and $100 for all other participants. Space is limited. For more information, a full schedule of events and to register, go to www.brainscienceinstitute.org or contact Barbara Smith at bsmith13@jhmi.edu or 410-955-4504.


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