When I heard that the opening event of Brain Awareness Week this year was on the theme of improvisation and involved arts and science, I knew that I wanted to be the one to report on it. I decided to do this blog as an improvisation; that is what follows.
I am riding the subway on my way to Improvisation in the Sciences at Columbia. It’s the first event of Brain Awareness Week and involves musicians and scientists. Given the theme, and since I am both an artist and neuroscientist, I decided to improvise this blog, a little experiment. I’m feeling a bit nervous, like I’m performing myself. Before I left my apartment, I sat down to play a sonata on the piano, I thought it would get me in the mood but I was interrupted by a phone call letting me know that the subways were delayed. I ran out of the house. Having stopped the sonata in the middle, the strains are repeating unresolved in my mind’s ear. I am anticipating music on the program, but it probably won’t be this kind of music.
I arrive and shut my umbrella at the door of Earl Hall. A host greets me. She arranged my seat at the back of the room, so that my improvisation won’t disturb the audience. I thought I would be typing, but at the last minute, pen and paper felt more creative. So I am composing this silently after all and could have avoided sitting behind a giant, elegantly dressed English professor. On the way to the hall, I went to the men’s room and, on the door next to it was a sign on: ‘Footbath – for CU students, faculty, and guests only.’ Should I watch where I walk? Should I have worn easier shoes to remove?
Antoine Roney, the saxophonist, and his 10-year old son Kojo, a drummer have started to play. The music is, relentless. The father, despite the agitated line he is playing, looks as if he is praying. His son pounds his kit with a terrifying drive I can feel in my throat and stomach. The variegated rhythms follow each other with continued unpredictability, yet their progress seems inevitable, the ingredients of great improv. Usually talks open with someone fumbling as they try to sync their laptop with the projector. Now this is an opening to a neuroscience talk!
Moderator Martin Chalfie is being introduced as a chemist but works in the Biology Department, exploring how neurons facilitate sensation, making him neither a chemist nor a biologist – typical neuroscientist! He is a multidisciplinarian, a good fit for an evening inspired by visual artist Romare Bearden’s 1977 Black Odyssey, a cycle of color-saturated collages and watercolors based on Homer’s epic poem, showing at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery. Bearden’s themes of returning home and improvisation in life and art are the jumping off points for the riffs the contributors will make this evening.
Professor Chalfie is projecting a graph recording when in the last 30 years he has published papers on different topics in sensation. It shows that he has often abandoned ideas after working on them, returning to being productive years later, after they had had time to develop in his mind (returning home) or after an accidental discovery has led him to form new ideas (improvisation). The element of play is important to the process of science – let me write this down, Current Biology 2015, paper by Patrick Bateson – it is important because it allows enjoyment of the new and unexpected. I find play essential to performing, but don’t know that I bring it to doing science. Not like the physicist Richard Feynman, who played the bongos. Chalfie is talking about Feynman now, and also the biologist Alexander Fleming, who I associate with penicillin, but not so much with play. I’ll have to read that paper.
Music professor George Lewis is wearing a rumpled gray sweater and muttering to himself in that classic absent-minded professor sort-of-way. He is launching into a 2002 paper from Science. I love it. The trombonist on the panel starts with genetics! The Oxford English Dictionary definition of improvisation focuses on music. Music that is spontaneous, of-the-moment, embodies fresh ideas – all true, but not enough, he says. Improvisation occurs across disciplines. We cannot pay attention to everything in the universe – yes, neuroscientific study of attention confirms that – we cannot control all aspects of our world. But we can change the plan when we encounter what we don’t expect. There is a security guard’s walky-talky squawking behind the curtain. This is distracting. Professor Lewis mimics it! He is improvising, showing us his adaptability as the environment gives him what he doesn’t expect. This, he posits, is a way we improvise in life. Did he pay that security guard? He speaks of improvisation in anthropology, in computer science – the Mars Rover is an example of computer as improviser. Can we study improvisation not by studying performers, he asks, as they are experts and therefore outliers, but study ordinary people performing tasks in circumstances for which they have no precedent? Creativity is all around us. With obstacles and agency we see improvisation.
Neuroscientist Michael Shadlen plugs in his laptop. A jazz piece is playing. Sea Breeze by Romare Bearden, he tells us. Touche, our neuroscientist has begun with music. If Professor Lewis talked about improvisation as expressed in behavior, then Shadlen looks at it on the cellular level. He is showing us an illusion via which, although the eyes take in information from static images, the brain perceives motion. This is because the perceptual system does not derive its output solely from its input. This is what I studied in the lab too! We say that the brain “makes predictions,” which is not exactly true since the brain is not a person, but the point is, and Shadlen is making it now, that visual perceptions are a product of input from the environment and predictions. He is telling us about his experiment which recorded electrical impulses from neurons in the brains of monkeys that were trained to move their eyes in response to a cue. The delay after the cue fell within a predictable range of time. After training, the monkey’s neurons accurately predicted this delay. They anticipated the pattern. When he changed the delay, the neurons adapted and anticipated the new pattern. Cognition bridges past and future, Shadlen says. I like that. Decisions are not capricious. Whether we are talking about a journey away from home or away from the beat, our very neurons interact with our environment. Improvisation is at the very core of decision making.
Millind Gajanan Watve has just flown in from India. He is jet lagged, he says in a high, musical, heavily-accented voice. He is called a professor of biology, but he is not a scientist. He writes poetry, but he is not an artist. What is he then? An explorer, he tells us. Professor Watve is playing music that sounds like synthesized stuff from the 1970s, like Manheim Steamroller, only from India. It was written by a computer, he tells us. There is also an algorithm which permits a computer to write poetry. He tests responses to human- and computer-composed art to try to understand what in the components of art produces the experience we have of it. What is its grammar? What lends it coherence? The professor is reading some of the computer’s couplets from a form of poetry known as Gazal. They are in Urdu. It has been an effort to understand him, so it is lovely to hear him read in his native language. I can’t understand the words, but I know I’m not supposed to. While the musician talked about behavior and the neuroscientist of neurons, our explorer looks at the art itself. Improvisation is about the balance of constraint and randomization, the expected and the unintended, he says. Art and science need two essential elements, ok here is the punchline, the tendency to randomize and recombine – that’s like DNA, and he said earlier that music and DNA are similar – and an ability to select and reject ingredients, that’s the agency that George Lewis spoke about.
Now it is time for questions. This is the part when I usually want to leave. People tell stories about themselves and don’t actually ask anything. I think I’ll see if any of the pictures I took came out. These are terrible. I took two of the young drummer and they are blurry. I’m thinking about the footbath in the basement. Perhaps it is a religious thing? The questioners have been coming up to the microphone: a quantum physicist, an anthropologist, someone with a political point to make about learning disabilities, a musician. This interests me less for the content of their questions than for illustrating George Lewis’s point that improvisation is relevant across disciplines. And it is in the spirit of Brain Awareness Week as it exemplifies the many portals through which different people can experience neuroscience. Hang on, someone just asked about inspiration. The artist in me wants to hear this. Lewis says that he doesn’t wait for it, and that if someone is to be creative, then the trick is to learn to recognize it in all its forms. Shadlen translates this into science. Since most cognitive processing happens below the level of consciousness, he thinks of inspiration as what happens when something pierces through into consciousness and you suddenly see a piece of the whole usefully. In a way this just happened to me when I heard this question and its relevance to me pulled me from distraction back to writing. He experiences this in the scientific process, he says, it is the art of science.
A neuroscientist in the audience is asking a question, the scientist in me wants to hear this. She fears that conducting experiments on creativity is reductionist. Shandlen is on a roll. Experiments are always limited to understanding some small aspect of a problem space and then we extrapolate from that. Even when we do explain something about a Coltrane composition, he is saying now, we haven’t explained it away. We might reveal some rudiment of a model to understand it, but we haven’t destroyed its beauty. And this brings us full circle, having begun the evening with a saxophonist. I make a big star next to this point in my notebook. As an artist and a scientist, I am happy to have come here just to hear that.
Check out the calendar of New York City events here and the Global events here.