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Neuroscience and the Arts Today
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PAJ explored the growing discourse on the concerns of body, mind, and consciousness that the arts share with neuroscience during a panel entitled “Neuroscience and the Arts Today: Shared Interfaces,” which took place on December 11, 2012, at the SoHo gallery, Location One. Five individuals joined artist and moderator, Ellen Levy, to discuss this theme, including another artist, a dancer, a musician, an author, and a neuroscientist. This conversation is a transcription of the panel. Where necessary, information appears in brackets in the text.

The featured artists and performers have built on recent neuroscientific knowledge, incorporating social, cognitive, or affective discoveries in their art. Some work collaboratively with neuroscientists while others work alone. All are engaged in communicating their insights about the body and mind to the general public, and many are educators. Today, knowledge gained in cognitive neuroscience by those working in the visual arts, performing arts, literature, and music has amplified productive approaches to creativity, emotion, and even the healing process. The reverse is also true: neuroscience sees art as an increasingly valuable resource, and its practitioners are finding ways to apply this knowledge. Novel therapies are in the process of developing by using knowledge of brain function and basic physiology to improve well-being, and artist/performers as well as scientists have undertaken a role in this process.

Neuroscience and the Arts: An Introduction


The primary interface we are addressing in this panel is that between the arts and neurosciences. Both fields offer perspectives on how people perceive, think, and act, and the study of perception has long characterized their commonality. The reason we are here today is to explore what some have called “embodied perception.” This term stresses the unity of bodily response made to varied signals from the environment. This is not new information; we have known for some time that visual perception is not solely visual but is influenced by affective, proprioceptive, and tactile dimensions as well as by the goals of the perceiver. What is new, however, are some of the shifts in practice occurring in both the arts and neuroscience in response to the recognition that perception is embodied, and this is the main focus of today’s discussion.

I think embodied perception is well portrayed in the following passage from a book by one of our panelists, Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men:

But there is another aspect of long marriages that is rarely spoken about. What begins as ocular indulgence, the sight of the gleaming beloved, which incites the appetite for around the clock rumpty-rumpty, alters over time. The partners age and change and become so accustomed to the presence of the other that vision ceases to be the most important sense. I listened for Boris in the morning if I woke to see his half of the bed empty, listened for the flushing toilet or the sound of him filling the tea kettle with water. I would feel the hard bones of his shoulders as I placed my hands on them to greet him silently while he read the paper before going to the lab. I did not peer into his face or examine his body; I merely felt that he was there, just as I smelled him at night in the dark. The odor of his warm body had become part of the room.

All of us can identify with similar experiences. What then are the shifts in outlook and artistic practice that are actually occurring due to the recognition of embodied perception? I believe that they are demonstrated in awareness by practitioners in the arts who offer a potential for healing related to issues of attention and bodily movement. They are also shown in a critical awareness of technological interfaces and their potential for both good and harm. In turn, these shifts have inspired those in one profession to look around and see what others in altogether different arenas are doing. As philosopher Gilles Deleuze said, the “encounter between two disciplines doesn’t take place where one begins to reflect on the other but when one discipline realizes that it has to resolve for itself and by its own means a problem similar to the...

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