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


Autism, Gabrielle Giffords and the Neuroscience Behind “The Singing Therapy”

As many of you know, whilst in Vienna a couple of weeks ago, I attended the Second World Congress of Clinical Neuromusicology. Although there were many intriguing presentations, it was no contest to see which paper stood out. In 1996, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug (Boston, Harvard Medical School) performed an experiment to test the shared neural correlation of singing and speech. Here is a portion of the abstract:

Using a modified sparse temporal sampling fMRI technique, we examined both shared and distinct neural correlates of singing and speaking. In the experimental conditions, 10 right-handed subjects were asked to repeat intoned (“sung”) and non-intoned (“spoken”) bisyllabic words/phrases that were contrasted with conditions controlling for pitch (“humming”) and the basic motor processes associated with vocalization (“vowel production”) (Özdemir, Norton, and Schlaug, 2006).

The remainder of the paper may be found here, but I will try to summarize the result. Basically, by actually singing the words or phrase, and not simply speaking or humming (referred to as ‘intoned speaking’), there occurred additional right lateralized activation of the superior temporal gyrus, inferior central operculum, and inferior frontal gyrus. What this means for the rest of us? This activation is now more than ever believed to be reason that while patients suffering from aphasia due to stroke or other varying brain damage may be unable to speak, they are able to sing.

That was in 2006. In a few short years, music therapy and the applied neuroscience of music have all but exploded-the question is, why? As many publications have noted, the idea that music can be used in rehabilitation has been around for a century or more. So what has caused such media coverage in the last few years? My simple theory is because through the popularization of these techniques’ success via persons in the public eye, everyone is beginning to understand that it just works.

Speaking of the public eye, a friend sent me this article from NPR this morning. Though I was vaguely familiar with this success story, it really surprised me to see it mentioned in national media. For those unaware, a current hot topic in science journalism is the method of therapy Gabrielle Giffords has chosen after she suffered massive brain trauma. I’ve run into cases similar to this one before, but it was what kind of music therapy that really caught my attention: Melodic Intonation Therapy. The reason this really caught my attention is because this is precisely the groundbreaking (and very successful) research Dr. Schlaug presented at the conference in Vienna, only his use was with nonverbal Autistic children. Though Schlaug’s research largely pertains to other faculties, he set out in this case to test AMMT (Auditory Motor Mapping Therapy, a kind of specifically targeted ASD therapy akin to Melodic Intonation Therapy used for stroke patients with aphasia) against normative Controlled Speech Therapy.

Without going too in-depth, what he and his team discovered was that patients who engaged in singing (as opposed to merely speaking or humming) showed additional right lateralized activation of the superior temporal gyrus, inferior central operculum, and inferior frontal gyrus. Due to this, a strong case can be made as to why aphasic patients with left-hemisphere brain lesions are able to sing the text of a song whilst being incapable of speaking the same words. What this means for the whole of this ‘Singing Therapy’ is that by being able to work with brain regions such as Broca’s area which may facilitate the mapping of sound to action, all kinds of different strides may be made linguistically in patients with left-hemisphere brain damage. People who suffer from neurological impairments or disorders that would otherwise be completely unable to communicate verbally may now have that chance. In the words of Dr. Schlaug, “When there is no left hemisphere, you need the right hemisphere to work.”

To get back to congresswoman Giffords, I’d like to take a moment to talk about what is so important and unique with her situation by looking at her case from point of impact to recovery. Nearly one year ago, Giffords sustained a massive head trauma via a bullet that went directly through her brain. Unfortunately, when the bullet entered in this way, it didn’t stop at destroying the tissue in its path (which was for her in the left hemisphere); it also damaged the surrounding neurons, causing the brain to quickly swell and put her in immediate fatal danger of hematomas and other complications. Because of this, surgery was necessary right away to remove a portion of her skull in order for the swelling to, as it were, breathe. The surgery Giffords took part in was the once risky decompressive hemicraniectomy. For more information on this procedure, there’s a fantastic post by Bradley Voytek over at Oscillatory Thoughts including some great data, analysis and images on the process. If the congresswoman’s circumstances are ringing any bells for anyone, it’s because it bears some resemblance to arguably one of the most famous head trauma cases in neuroscience and psychology as a whole-Phineas Gage. I shall soon share some thoughts on Gage, and why he remains so near and dear to my heart (and certainly to the heart of Antonio Damasio) in terms of emotional intelligence and neuroscience, but until then, some parting thoughts on Giffords.

In the beginning of this road to recovery, most were skeptical that Giffords would ever be able to speak again, in any vein. However, through the process of working in Melodic Intonation Therapy with her music therapist, she has gone from singing short words and phrases (in minor thirds, the prominently used interval in this therapy) to singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to more structurally complex and well-known jazz and rock standards such as I Can’t Give You Anything But Love and American Pie. She has made massive strides in her recovery process, and continues to make more every day. This is only one example of the effectiveness and hope this “Singing Therapy” is bringing to the medical field. Even after speaking to Dr. Schlaug inVienna and finding he has “absolutely no interest whatsoever” in psychological disorders, I continue to be enthusiastic in the strides he and his team are making in the applied neuroscience of music.

A note: I continue to be amused by what a small world the pragmatic combining of music and neuroscience remains. Upon reaching the end of the NPR article, I now know why it was already so familiar to me, and why I immediately thought of Schlaug’s work at Harvard and Beth Israel-it is because that’s precisely the team NPR is taking their data from! Brilliant.


Damasio: Prophetic Tones in Descartes’ Error

The postcriptum of Descartes’ Error contained an idea which pointed to the future of neurobiological research: the mechanisms of basic homeostasis constitute a blueprint for the cultural development of the human values which permit us to judge actions as good or evil, and classify objects as beautiful or ugly. At the time, writing about this idea gave me hope that a two-way bridge could be established between neurobiology and the humanities, thus providing the way for a better understanding of human conflict and for a more comprehensive account of creativity. I am pleased to report that some progress has been made toward building that sort of bridge. For example, some of us are actively investigating the brain states associated with moral reasoning while others are trying to discover what the brain does during aesthetic experiences. The intent is not ethics or aesthetics to brain circuitry but rather explore the threads that interconnect neurobiology to culture. I am even more hopeful today that such a seemingly utopian bridge can become reality and optimistic that we will enjoy its benefits without having to wait another century.

-Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error (preface, 2005)

She’s Lost Control: Amygdala Hijack?!

She’s Lost Control

In considering the why, and now the how of better implementing tools made available in music psychology, I am consistently struck by how very complex our musical preferences and responses are as humans.While avoiding the attempt to craft any groundbreaking expository theories,  I’d like to visit a motivation of mine in the field whilst bringing attention to an old Joy Division favorite. First, I will disaggregate the various schools of thought that overlap in this field of music psychology.  What do the following have in common?

1. Existential and phenomenological psychology

2. Jungian personality dichotomies

3. Psychological resilience

4. Malabou’s concept of neuroplasticity

5. Psychoanalysis

6. Advances in the neurological study of fear

7. Critical understandings of cultural and societal treatments of emotion

8. Music

In addition to composing the framework of my greatest motivators toward an existential understanding of life, I’d posit that not only do they contribute to the eventual pragmatic method I seek to establish in a clinical therapeutic setting, they are necessary in totality. The more I engage a dialogue regarding the concept as a whole, the more I am struck by just how much need be taken into consideration as well as shedding some light into my peculiar distaste for ‘music therapy’ as a solitary solution. Though music therapy practices have occasionally been proven effective for various wellness processes in young children as well as adults, I remain skeptical. I would argue that one need explore deeper into the psyche, history and personality of the patient. Far too often we see music therapy studies carried out on young adults in particular that prove completely blanketed – with the total exclusion of considerations such as gender, individual neuronal histories and variance in personality.

To come quickly to the point, I recently posed a vital question: In the occurrence of a (negative) amygdala “takeover”, what is the immediate goal? Is it to utilize music to objectify the patient’s feelings, or to quickly placate and soothe the individual’s distress (particularly if the patient suffers a history of auto-destructive behavior)? My response to the above is both, but objectively more as well. Here are a few thoughts to consider which barely skim the surface in composing the process of discerning what type of method and music should be used:

  1. History of Mental Illness (i.e. What are the immediate concerns? Has the patient demonstrated a capability or propensity for harm to self or others?)
  2. Medical and Psychiatric History (Has there been any type of surgery or modification in brain chemistry or anatomy?)
  3. Socioeconomic Background (What types of music to which the patient been exposed as a part of their ‘nurture’ upbringing, and the extent of music appreciation in their cultural worldview?)
  4. Religious/Familial/Educational background (i.e. unconscious and conscious conditioning-in what context has the patient learned or been taught to treat music? Is it a daily ritual, mainly a social luxury, rite of a religious tradition, utilized in education, etc.)
  5. Personality (What characteristics of extroverted or introverted personality types are being displayed?)
  6. Musical Preferences and Affect Regulation (How and to what extent are they affected by repetition, unfamiliar versus familiar rhythms and meters, Eastern/Western depictions of consonance and dissonance, ‘major’ versus ‘minor’ tonalities, etc.)
  7. Musical Propensity and Skill in Practice or Performance
  8. Existential values and spiritual/moral motivations of the patient

On the tip of the iceberg of gaining a general understanding of the patient, we see already that the answer lies beyond sitting down with a troubled teenage male, playing a bit of Mendelssohn and assuming to illicit the disclosure of an exhaustive account for discord with his father. Establishing a rapport and fluency over the course of time, making the effort to implement music he responds to, and eventually gain an empathetic understanding of how to meet him on his level, however, is something I’m interested in.

I’d like to now return for a moment to the ultimate motivator and the necessity for this type of process. When I speak of the amygdala hijack, I am referring to the very instance in which the fight or flight response occurs. Although the ‘limbic system’ was long perceived to be an emotional center of the brain, the amygdala has been found to be the main ‘limbic’ area involved clearly implicated in the processing of threats. A ‘hijack’ occurs when our brain responds to threats; devoid of reasonable consideration or logic. Typically, when we are presented a stimulus, three events occur: we sense (visual, aural, olfactory, touch, etc.), we process, and we react. These occur in rapid succession. At the moment the threat is processed, the amygdala can override the neo-cortex, a center of higher thinking which deals with sensory perception and motor commands, and initiate an impulsive response (which holds the potential of negatively producing instances of destructive behavior and emotional irrationality). Because it is easier for the amygdala to control the neo-cortex by arousing various brain areas than it is for the neo-cortex to control the amygdala, the ability to shut down anxiety producing hormones and emotions is no simple feat, and proves an exquisite challenge in undertakings of crafting a therapy.

One theory (enter elements of LeDoux, Goleman and Damasio) is that if we can slow or somehow manipulate this hijack process, we may buy ourselves the time it takes to properly process the stimulus, and respond in an appropriate, healthy fashion. LeDoux was hopeful about the possibility of learning to control the amygdala’s impulsive role in emotional outbursts: “Once your emotional system learns something, it seems you never let it go. What therapy does is teach you how to control it – it teaches your neocortex how to inhibit your amygdala. The propensity to act is suppressed, while your basic emotion about it remains in a subdued form.” My theory? We can do it with music.

In closing, I’d like to briefly provide an example of my conviction that the above considerations are essential for a beneficial psychologist/patient relationship. It would seem safe to assume that were we to randomly sample a group of 1,000 healthy, typically functioning women age 18-30, and narrow from there the women who have an extensive knowledge and listening history of the English ‘post-punk’ band Joy Division, we would be presented with an entire spectrum of emotional affect regarding participant’s specific and individual musical associations. Obviously this study is strictly hypothetical primarily in that were we to stop there, the comorbidity and variables would be obscene. My point is, it is almost guaranteed that there will be few in this clinical group who associate exclusively a strictly negative or strictly positive sentiment, and valence and arousal reaction to any one specific selected musical styling of Joy Division. Human experiences, associations and implicit reactions are unique, thus requiring a highly individualized method of interplay. I leave you now with a narrative appropriate to the study itself, with the hope of one day creating a methodical approach designed to alleviate the anxious and distressed of this very sentiment.