The anatomy of creativity

A collaboration between a composer and his neuroscientist muse probes one of life's deepest questions

By | May 8, 2009

Here's a question that has plagued philosophers, artists, and scientists alike for centuries: How was consciousness born?
Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and John Ferrari and Ayano
Kataoka (percussion) perform
Self Comes to Mind, by Bruce Adolphe

Photo: linkurl:Geoff McKonly;http://www.geoffmckonlyboatbuilding.com
One composer and a neuroscientist took a stab at answering the age-old question at a performance of a new musical work, "Self Comes to Mind," last Sunday (May 3), at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The piece weaves together music by composer linkurl:Bruce Adolphe,;http://bruceadolphe.com/ text written by neuroscientist linkurl:Antonio Damasio,;http://www.usc.edu/programs/neuroscience/faculty/profile.php?fid=27 and a video created from brain images of his wife and collaborator, linkurl:Hanna Damasio.;http://college.usc.edu/cf/faculty-and-staff/faculty.cfm?pid=1008329&CFID=1186468&CFTOKEN=38061507 What results is an ethereal three-part creation story of the mind. The story tells of "the evolution of mind from brain," Adolphe told The Scientist in an interview the week before the performance. "It goes from the idea of a brain in a creature that doesn't know, to consciousness and the anxiety and dilemmas of consciousness." Each section of the music is preceded by a recording of Damasio reading a passage that describes a stage in the evolution of consciousness and the discovery of self-awareness. The piece begins with a series of almost scale-like segments of cello (performed by Yo-Yo Ma) and percussion (performed by John Ferrari and Ayano Kataoka). The first movement, called "When Mind First in the Body Bloomed," leaves the listener feeling as though the sound -- and the mind -- is testing the waters, trying out its range. "Musically speaking, it's fragmentation coming together," Adolphe explained. In the second movement, called "Self Came to Mind," the music becomes at once more focused and more agitated -- complex, questioning, occasionally dissonant. In this new stage of the mind's development, Damasio's text reads, "Loss could be forseen, but so could gain and so could hope." Musically, this "kind of explosion of an awareness of knowing," Adolphe said, "suggested tight-knit contrapuntal writing -- where details refract throughout the piece." Finally, in the last section of the piece, called "Discovery," the music matures into a kind of complex and insistent exploration. It reflects "the anxiety that comes with knowing," Adolphe said, and to reflect that, "the last movement is completely different from the other two in basic musical diction." Adolphe and Damasio, who heads the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, met in 1993. Both were invited speakers at an Aspen Institute conference on higher brain function that addressed the subject of creativity and science in the arts. Adolphe had recently written linkurl:The Mind's Ear,;http://www.amazon.com/Minds-Ear-Exercises-Imagination-Performers/dp/0918812712 a book that explored ways both musicians and those listening to music could improve their musical imagination. "I came not sure why I had been invited, exactly," he said, since the book "has no science in it." Damasio's talk was the afternoon before his, and Adolphe went to the scientist's presentation. The speech explored themes that a year later would find their way into Damasio's first popular science book, linkurl:Descartes' Error,;http://www.amazon.com/Descartes-Error-Emotion-Reason-Human/dp/014303622X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1241799360&sr=8-1 about the interconnectedness of emotion and rationality in the brain. Adolphe was profoundly affected. "I was completely blown away," he recalled, "by the way his neuroscience research affected his way of talking about creativity. I actually went back to my hotel room and I started [my talk] over -- I rewrote everything so that I could address the things he'd brought up." Damasio noticed Adolphe's nod to his ideas, and the two began a conversation about music, creativity, and the brain that continues to this day. Adolphe created two compositions based on Damasio's ideas -- and even specific phrases -- in the researcher's subsequent books. For "Self Comes to Mind," though, Adolphe proposed a more direct collaboration, asking Damasio to write something relating to his research, as a basis for his musical composition. The first version Damasio sent, he recalls, was surprisingly lacking in science; Damasio was too successful, Adolphe said, in tailoring his text to a general audience.
Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and John Ferrari and Ayano
Kataoka (percussion) perform
Self Comes to Mind, by Bruce Adolphe

Photo: linkurl:Geoff McKonly;http://www.geoffmckonlyboatbuilding.com
After some back and forth between the collaborators, the short, three-part prose poem that emerged served as the basis for Adolphe's composition, and a map of the musical narrative of the piece. "Everything he wrote had consequences in the music," Adolphe said. It was Ma who suggested adding a visual component, and the images of Hanna Damasio, an expert in neuroimaging, were an obvious choice, Adolphe added. From the green and blue MRI scans fading as if they are mere drops in a puddle and the nerve-like processes extending like tendrils in the first section, to the red jagged extensions of dendrites and lightening-white traces of electrical activity in the last section, the images provide another avenue of connecting to the narrative and musical arc of the piece. After the performance, Adolphe, Ma, and Damasio set out some chairs amid the percussion instruments, and in an on-stage panel discussion led by linkurl:Jonah Lehrer,;http://www.jonahlehrer.com/books brain-blogger and author of How We Decide, talked about the themes probed in the piece. "A piece like this is very complex," Damasio said, "but with all due respect, it pales in comparison with what goes on in even a single cell." In that sense, he said, the scientific study of creativity can breed "so much more reverence for what it is." The piece is likely only the latest installment in a long and fruitful collaboration between Adolphe and Damasio. "One of the things Antonio and I hope to do together is to explore the relationship between music and neuroscience, hopefully in a different way than is typical," Adolphe said. For example: How does memorizing and performing a major large-scale work, such as Johann Sebastian Bach's linkurl:Goldberg Variations,;http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCuALWK6ZNg&feature=PlayList&p=496A7CAE0EA88AA8&index=0 affect the brain? "It seems to me that it has to fundamentally alter how you think about things."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Mental music;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/54510/
[28th March 2008]*linkurl:Music and the mind;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/36701/
[21st November 2006]
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Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 23

May 8, 2009

Self-explanatory.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 8, 2009

I can hear it. \n\nV. interesting concept and execution.

May 11, 2009

Feels good to find something like this, as a performing musician and a budding cognitive scientist!
Avatar of: Tony Duncan

Tony Duncan

Posts: 1

May 11, 2009

I am fascinated by the role of music in consciousness. This collaboration is interesting and I like the interplay of ideas with the output of music, but I dont see that it explains anything or offers any special insight. I like Levitin's work on the subject though i have some disagreements with him about evolution
Avatar of: Brian Butcher

Brian Butcher

Posts: 1

July 17, 2009

I once had the honor of being able to get Arthur Miller as keynote speaker to a group of young scientists. When first approached, he said he knew nothing about science, but after some discussion, agreed to speak on creativity. It was a fascinating presentation and made us all aware of the the many similarities in the creative process in science and the arts.

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