Damasio on The Origins of Creativity (A Philosophy of Art, Part II).


On Saturday, the Society for Neuroscience presented the Fred Kavli Public Symposium on Creativity. Chaired by Antonio Damasio, presenters included composer Bruce Adolphe, clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind) and Damasio himself. Each speaker depicted a unique portrait in examples of creations, collaborations and the psyche behind it – Jamison through beautiful insight into the correlation of madness to creativity; Adolphe via imagination in his portrayal of a musical composition in alliance to mental illness.

It was Damasio, however, that really caught my attention in the vein he chose to depict what it is to create. He began, “Creativity is largely human – it is entirely a product of the mind, a product of mind-making brains. It assists life regulation (homeostasis).”[i] Long before there was even the option of achieving a balance of survival, there were simply eukaryotic cells, operating unconsciously. From there came the brain, then the mind, and from there, the self. For Damasio, to construct consciousness, the brain uses the mind (the basic component) and the self (where consciousness comes to light). “Creations are original products of the mind. Creativity is the engendering of such projects – ideas, objects, activities, etc. The self engenders a concern for the life proceedings, and it allows individuals to seek well-being, a state far more complex and difficult to obtain than mere survival. It is only then that the game of life changes radically, and we move from blind biology to the rebellious determination that brings on complex social behavior and eventually culture and civilizations…Art can only emerge then, and it becomes a critical component of that cultural evolution.”[ii]

Before creating a discourse in cultural necessity, let us briefly consider the biological. The cognitive and neural substrates shown between the processes of existing on the creating end, and those on the end of perceiving the created, reveal undeniable similarities. Although the means and neural activations certainly reveal a contrast (for example, portrait painting might activate the fusiform gyrus behind facial recognition, while recognizing expression in the portrait may illuminate the occipital lobe or the amygdala). Much of their motive and affect illustrate many parallels. In creating art, one basic but essential component is being able to utilize skills drawn from learning and memory recall. The creator need use their procedural memory, such as memories storing unconscious learnt skills (such as riding a bike or laying one’s fingers to the piano keys), and declarative memory, in the means of episodic memories (evoked from personal experiences) or semantic (the recall of facts, such as adhering to the accidentals of F minor).

In addition to memories summoned on behalf of the creator, Damasio further explains many of the same tools used in processing and affect are utilized on the opposing end. For the observer, the fluid interplay of remembrance, recalled emotions and feelings oft lead to analysis and reflection (be it superficial or profound). Prior experience with the particular art form (connoisseurship) shapes the observer’s ability to evaluate and enjoy what they have either sought or been presented. Individual preference determines distinctions in imagination and the breakdown/composition of elements in much the same way the creator embarks in posing the question “How novel is it, and how much does it fit the original goal defined?” As Damasio states, “On the mind-brain side of it, you have the importance for imagination, and of memory recall (the ability to display working memory’s faces and realize what it imagined). All of this needs to be modulated by affective experience. The moment you think about this in pure, non-affective cognitive terms, you very simply throw away the baby with the bathwater. It is the guidance that comes from the affective process from the emotional drive and the feeling that is going to make it work, or not.”[iii]

In circling back to the evolutionary underpinnings and origins of art in the physical, musical or visual realms, we retain that both the creator and receiver’s pursuit of art responding to their conscious (or unconscious) recognition of problems and needs. Humanity requires a method of processing, reasoning and making decisions, which the object theoretically should fulfill in its obligation of response. One could easily draw the conclusion that there existed a need (and therefore objective) to communicate with others. Damasio describes threats and opportunities, varying social behaviors, or conveying one’s own sorrow or joy as the probable key intents of communiqué. When these conversations were successful, and were found to be of positive effect, there came to being a compensatory balance. He arrives at a notable point in the seemingly obvious: How would the arts have prevailed otherwise?

Art responds to a need. Art fulfills the wont for intellectual enrichment, satisfies an otherwise empty void for many social contexts and institutions, lends much to the progress of science and technology, and realizes the desire for a more purposeful life existentially. The epic poems of Homer or Ovid are a significant example of a transaction for interaction of information. Prior to the enormous maturity and proliferation of science, literature was a vital method of imparting knowledge and fundamental means of exploration. We observed this heavily is the rise of psychoanalysis at the turn of the century, later by film, and now by neuroscience.

In addition to the evolutionary value of being able to communicate general information, Damasio posits the second largest catalyst for creativity was not only a mechanism of bonding and attachment (i.e. parent to offspring or in reproduction, male to female) but a means to induce nourishing emotions and feelings of varied kinds and importance, such as fear, anger, joy, sadness, indignation, revenge, pride, contempt, shame, loyalty and love. Damasio submits that music does this most of all-most importantly and most universally. The discovery of pleasure in reaction to varying timbres, pitches, rhythms and their relationship to each other surely contributed to the indispensable invention and persistence of this art form – relationships which were discovered in a setting of play, and of repetition.

The foundations of creativity and constructions of art were crucial to the formation of society and to the evolution of humanity in not only the aesthetic sense, but also one of ethics. They promoted a sense of communal organization, and directly provided a mode of exercising moral judgment and moral action. The arts had a candid survival value in forming communication for calls of alarm or opportunity, and they contributed to the notion of well-being. The arts fortified social groups, and social groups in turn fortified creativity. The impulse to create and as a result embrace new and adaptive behaviors possibly even helped humans transcend the Paleolithic era.[iv] They contributed to an exchange of ideas and compensated for emotional imbalances caused by fear, anger, desire, sadness and loss, and catalyzed the sustained process of establishing social and cultural institutions. Because art is so heavily founded in biology, thus homeostasis, and can take us to the highest realms of thought and of feeling, art is an authentic means into the refinement humanity most desires.

 Three years later, much has changed in my life. Three years ago, my father, a singer and profound example of an artist’s command of control and heavenly motive, was still alive. So was a dear friend, who gave me my first book on Jackson Pollock to “stretch my artistic enjoyment.” Much has changed. Much has been found, and lost. Through all the things I have learned and gained, what propels me the most in intellectual, academic and moral pursuits remain: the search for beauty, knowledge, hope, and resilience. I have more than one jealous muse – neuroscience, poetry, dance, psychology, affection, seeking the coveted childlike wonder of the sky’s blanket before dawn – and music most of all. These things are all meaningless, all futile, however, devoid of passion for the refinement and rediscovery of buoyancy, integrity, compassion and love. There are a great many things in art and life that I do not understand, and will never understand. It is the greatest comedy, the most schizophrenic irony of all to be human, in a constant pursuit of perfection that will never be obtained. The alternative is contentment, dormant satisfaction, apathy. This, I reject. If time will not pause while I find my way, it stands to reason that by inertia I will keep going, keep attempting, regardless. If I am to undergo this fallen, fleeting existence of tragic loss and immeasurable joy in the means most true to my human nature, I will do so with art.

After all, in the words of Damasio, when we undergo art, we change for the better.

cupid and psyche

[i] Damasio, Antonio. (November 9, 2013). Fred Kavli Public Symposium on Creativity. Neuroscience 2013. Society for Neuroscience, San Diego.

[ii] Damasio, Antonio. (June 11, 2009).Evolutionary Origins of Art and Aesthetics: Art and Emotions. CARTA (Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny). Salk Institute, La Jolla.

[iii] Damasio, Antonio. (November 9, 2013). Fred Kavli Public Symposium on Creativity. Neuroscience 2013. Society for Neuroscience, San Diego.

[iv] ibid


Request For Feedback – When Tragedy Strikes: A Music Behavioral Analysis

Dear friends,

Thus far, my research interests have lain in the children I’ve tested and taught in person, and I have had little use for gathering data from anyone over the age of 18. As I craft together my first pitch, however, I’d like to ask for some feedback. I’ve been given the opportunity to write about two subjects I find very fascinating. In fact, I believe anyone else has yet to combine them in quite this way. I’m attempting to piece together the music industry and psychological resilience. In the end, it all boils down to music behavior analysis. In this vein, I find myself happily at home. When venturing toward the music industry and modern practice, however, I’m treading on new ground.

 So I ask you, dear reader, if you have ever gone through a period of immense stress (i.e. one’s senior year of college or an audit at work), lost a loved one due to natural or unnatural causes, or experienced a major trial of any kind, to lend me your feedback. If you have ever streamed music using Spotify, Grooveshark, Songza, 8track, LastFM (etc.), or elected not to, I ask for your feedback. 


It’s been a few weeks since I really sat down on meditated on these concepts. This weekend, however, tragedy struck. A friend of mine lost his father, and I lost someone very dear to me. I suppose now is as good a time as ever, then, to write about loss, and how we respond to it.

I am interested in the way we respond to trauma/loss through the psychological lenses of music behavior with a special emphasis on playback. Because the debate of ownership vs. streaming is relatively new, there is precious little data available in the area I’m seeking. In terms of loss, this natural phenomenon has always existed. As for the modes and vices with which we counter this loss, our outlets would seem to expand on a daily basis. We grow at the speed of modern technology.

How has the ability to stream music affected stress/pain culture in the industry? Has it been altered in the least in terms of our music listening habits (ownership vs. access)? Is streaming saved for the young in age and young at heart, those without the worries of time and weather? In occasions of strife, do we turn to a new and fresh outlet which resigns our need and right of control? Or in a subconscious search for the regulation of external chaos do we flee from such an idea, clinging heavily to those old safe tunes proven time and time again to get us through?


I would appreciate any and all feedback in the aid of my essay. You may leave a comment, or if you wish to reach me privately, you may contact me on Facebook.

























Music therapy success in redirection of fight-or-flight behaviors in children with ASD

Sent to me from my friends at the Fondazione Mariani in Italy, this small article update caught my eye specifically because of my recent experiences with children with ASD and music. My lower post (My pilot in music and autism: thoughts on empathy, mirroring and rapport) goes into some detail about my experience, but suffice it to say here that I’ve only found time and time again that music proves to be a brilliant ice-breaker and way to put kids at ease, especially when they suffer from some type of social anxiety. Taken from the Journal of Biomusical Engineering,  the following illustrates some recent findings in the world of music and ASD:

Journal of Biomusical Engineering Vol. 2 (2012)
Pilot study investigating the efficacy of tempo-specific rhythm interventions in music-based treatment addressing hyper-arousal, anxiety, system pacing, and redirection of fight-or-flight fear behaviors in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Berger DS
The Music Therapy Clinic, Norwalk, CT 06850, USA

Many behaviors in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) resemble fight-or-flight avoidance responses resulting from habitual states of fear, possibly induced by sensory processing issues, causing on-going stress and deregulation of systemic pacing. This study hypothesized that patterned, tempo-based, rhythm interventions, at 60-beats per minute (pbm), can regulate and induce systemic pacing, reduce repetitive anxiety behaviors and enable focus and calm in persons with ASD. Eight-week pilot study investigated the influence of four sensorimotor rhythm interventions for habituation (entrainment) of systemic inner rhythms, pacing, stress, anxiety, and repetitive behavior reduction, ultimately yielding eye-contact, attention, motor planning, and memory. Six subjects (n = 6) ages 8–12, with ASD and minimal expressive language, were treated in 45-minute weekly one-on-one music therapy session, over eight weeks. A rating scale tracked responses and progress in vivo per session, and on video-tape. Lifeshirt heart-monitor vest with embedded wireless sensors, worn by each subject during the first, fifth and eight sessions, tracked heart-rate data. Results support the hypothesis that highly structured rhythmic interventions at a slow tempo can yield levels of systemic pacing, motor planning, visual contact, attention, reduction of anxiety and repetitive behaviors, and functional adaptation.

And for my Italian friends:

I bambini affetti da disordini dello spettro autistico (ASD) mostrano comportamenti di evitamento, causati da uno stress cronico determinato dalla cattiva regolazione del ritmo interiore. Questo studio ipotizza che un intervento di musicoterapia basato su strutture ritmiche a 60 battiti per minuto possa regolare il ritmo interiore del bambino, diminuendo i comportamenti ansiosi e facilitando la concentrazione. È stato effettuato uno studio pilota di 8 settimane per indagare l’influenza di 4 diversi tipi di intervento ritmico per il miglioramento del contatto visivo, dell’attenzione e della memoria. Sei bambini di età compresa tra gli 8 e i 12 anni, affetti da ASD e con scarso linguaggio espressivo, sono stati trattati con sessioni individuali di musicoterapia per 45 minuti alla settimana, per 8 settimane consecutive. I progressi sono stati riportati su una scala e i comportamenti sono stati videoregistrati per una successiva analisi. Il battito cardiaco è stato monitorato nelle sessioni 1, 5 e 8 attraverso una maglietta dotata di sensori wireless. I risultati supportano la tesi che un intervento di musicoterapia prolungata con un tempo lento possa ridurre l’ansia e i comportamenti ripetitivi e migliorare il contatto visivo, la programmazione motoria e l’attenzione.

Krzysztof Penderecki, Jonny Greenwood, Mental Illness and Encephalography

I ran across something rather intriguing the other day, thanks to this friend and music enthusiast. It is a collaboration between two highly respected musicians:  Krzysztof Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood. Imaginative, provocative and innovate as these string arrangements may be, it is in a very small component of the composing process which lies the real fascination for me:

Penderecki’s Polymorphia also had a fascinating birth. The composer played a recording of Threnody for patients with mental illnesses at the Krakow Medical Center while the patients had encephalographs (brain-wave charts) made; he then based Polymorphia‘s musical lines around the shapes on their charts. In his reply to Polymorphia, Greenwood takes up that big, glorious and triumphant C Major chord — and then shatters that harmonic glow into smithereens. He begins with a strangely Bach-reminiscent chorale (“Es Ist Genug,” or “It Is Enough,” which is also the name of a famous Bach chorale) that Greenwood then distorts and dissolves over and over again. He builds tension and lets it drain away, takes up an idea and then lets it go in swirling eddies of motion.

The original article on NPR may be found here.

Channeling Emotional Intensity in the Creative Artist

Thanks to Cheryl Arutt for one of the best, most easily accessible articles I’ve seen on channeling pain in the artist, including some brief (albeit great) insight into the chemical process that stimulates fight-or-flight syndrome. Find it here.