Saturday, March 2, 2013

Brain scans of artists while drawing

In a previous post we learned  that artists scan the world differently than non-artists do.

What about the neural activity inside the brain during the act of drawing?  What structures in the brain come into play? Is the activity in those structures different for experienced artists compared to non-artists? 
Neuroscientist Robert Solso, who headed the Cognition Lab at the University of Nevada-Reno, asked an experienced portrait painter named Humphrey Ocean (British, born 1951) to draw a picture of a face while his brain was being monitored by an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery) scanner. As a control, he had a graduate student with no particular experience at drawing do a similar task. 

The scans are below. These are horizontal cross sections with the front of the brain at the top. 

The four scans in the top row show the activity in the brain of the experienced artist while drawing; the lower scans are of the inexperienced person drawing. At far left, both scans show activity in the fusiform face area (FFA). This region in the rear right area of the brain specializes in face recognition. 

It appears that the inexperienced artist is "stuck" in this region. The artist's brain shifts activity to the right frontal area, a part of the brain that is active when we are consciously analyzing visual problems and enlisting more complex strategies. 

Here's how Solso explains it:
"It appears that a novice artist requires greater cerebral “effort,” as indicated by increased regional cerebral brain flow in the FFA than does an experienced portrait painter, who spends hours each day over years looking at and analyzing faces. Perhaps Ocean is so well practiced at facial perception that he is less likely than a novice to ponder the features and gestalt of a face. Furthermore, if Ocean’s brain is especially efficient at processing faces, he may be able to allocate more cerebral effort to deeper aspects of a person’s face. My preliminary results did indicate that Ocean showed greater activation in the right frontal area (see upper right two scans) than did the novice painter, which suggests that the expert painter used “higher order” cognitive processing. In effect, he could be “thinking” a face, as well as 'seeing' it."

Studies that look into art and cognition are just in their infancy, and there's much more to learn. Solso says: “Art and cognition have always stood as two convex mirrors each reflecting and amplifying the other. Yet surprisingly, in spite of monumental recent developments in both aesthetics and cognition, the connection between the two disciplines has not been studied systematically.”


Daniel said...

I love this topic; I don't know if you've covered it here, but Margaret Livingstone's book is a good introduction to the general subject. If you hear of any brain studies drawing on representational artists, after you leap at the chance yourself, would you consider mentioning me to them?

James Gurney said...

Daniel, thanks for mentioning Margaret Livingstone's book. I have a copy and recommend it. I've added a link to the post. One of the things she says is that "artists are vision scientists," in the sense that we artists are natural partners of scientists doing this research because we are so conscious of how we see and how we can communicate our visual experience for others.

RobNonStop said...

Awesome, been obsessed with this for months. There was a study comparing novice Taxi drivers with pros from London and how their brain changed over time to adapt. Would be great to see this for artists.

Would also be interesting to see the differences between artists and whether different subjects/motifs call up unique pattenrs of brain activity.

Aleada Aine Siragusa said...

This is fascinating. I feel an experience of "being in the zone" while painting. I would find it interesting to compare a brain scan of an experienced meditator and an experienced artist.

Laura said...

Wow! That's really interesting! :D Over the summer I read a book called Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer that discussed how creative people not only use the right hemisphere, but a combination and a consciousness of both hemispheres. Intriguing post! :)

Making A Mark said...

An interesting comment on 'Drawing on the Right hand Side of the Brain'!