Friday, January 15, 2016

Art in the Brain and the Default Mode Network (DMN)

I've got abstracts and links to two articles on art and something called the default mode network, which Wikipedia defines as follows:
In neuroscience, the default mode network (DMN), (also default network, or default state network), is a network of interacting brain regions known to have activity highly correlated with each other and distinct from other networks in the brain. The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering, but it is also active when the individual is thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future. The network activates "by default" when a person is not involved in a task. Though the DMN was originally noticed to be deactivated in certain goal-oriented tasks and is sometimes referred to as the task-negative network, it can be active in other goal-oriented tasks such as social working memory or autobiographical tasks. The DMN has been shown to be negatively correlated with other networks in the brain such as attention networks.
So, the DMN is focussed on the self, but not the external world. Art, of course, exists in the external world. The two studies below report that when people are particularly moved by a piece of art (visual art in these experiments), the DMN is activated, despite the fact that the art work exists in the external world. It thus seems that art that "reaches" us, that "moves" us is functionally "inside" us, rather than outside. Which makes sense, no?

See my post, Emotion Recollected in Tranquility, for some remarks on literature and the self. There I suggest that literature helps lay the neurochemical groundwork necessary to being able to recall events that evoke different emotions. What I'm in effect suggesting is that art may be important in making effective use of the DMN for organizing personal experience. That post is one of several in a working paper, Literature, Emotion, and Unity of Being. Here's the abstract:
Unity of being is both an aesthetic and an ethical ideal and it is about organizing desire, action, and emotion into a pattern of overall coherence. Such patterns are necessarily culture specific and somewhat arbitrary in their disposition of underlying biological materials. Stories involving often painful and embarrassing aspects of human behavior provide a means of publicly acknowledging and affirming the bewildering diversity of our behavior. Thus publically affirmed, these nonfictions are the means of constructing the neural 'scaffolding' on which we recall and organize the events of our lives.

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Front. Hum. Neurosci., 20 April 2012 |

The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network

Aesthetic responses to visual art comprise multiple types of experiences, from sensation and perception to emotion and self-reflection. Moreover, aesthetic experience is highly individual, with observers varying significantly in their responses to the same artwork. Combining fMRI and behavioral analysis of individual differences in aesthetic response, we identify two distinct patterns of neural activity exhibited by different sub-networks. Activity increased linearly with observers' ratings (4-level scale) in sensory (occipito-temporal) regions. Activity in the striatum (STR) also varied linearly with ratings, with below-baseline activations for low-rated artworks. In contrast, a network of frontal regions showed a step-like increase only for the most moving artworks (“4” ratings) and non-differential activity for all others. This included several regions belonging to the “default mode network” (DMN) previously associated with self-referential mentation. Our results suggest that aesthetic experience involves the integration of sensory and emotional reactions in a manner linked with their personal relevance.

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Front. Neurosci., 30 December 2013 |

Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network

Edward A. VesselG. Gabrielle Starr and Nava Rubin

In a task of rating images of artworks in an fMRI scanner, regions in the medial prefrontal cortex that are known to be part of the default mode network (DMN) were positively activated on the highest-rated trials. This is surprising given the DMN's original characterization as the set of brain regions that show greater fMRI activity during rest periods than during performance of tasks requiring focus on external stimuli. But further research showed that DMN regions could be positively activated also in structured tasks, if those tasks involved self-referential thought or self-relevant information. How may our findings be understood in this context? Although our task had no explicit self-referential aspect and the stimuli had no a priori self-relevance to the observers, the experimental design we employed emphasized the personal aspects of aesthetic experience. Observers were told that we were interested in their individual tastes, and asked to base their ratings on how much each artwork “moved” them. Moreover, we used little-known artworks that covered a wide range of styles, which led to high individual variability: each artwork was rated highly by some observers and poorly by others. This means that rating-specific neural responses cannot be attributed to the features of any particular artworks, but rather to the aesthetic experience itself. The DMN activity therefore suggests that certain artworks, albeit unfamiliar, may be so well-matched to an individual's unique makeup that they obtain access to the neural substrates concerned with the self—access which other external stimuli normally do not get. This mediates a sense of being “moved,” or “touched from within.” This account is consistent with the modern notion that individuals' taste in art is linked with their sense of identity, and suggests that DMN activity may serve to signal “self-relevance” in a broader sense than has been thought so far.

1 comment:

  1. Exciting work. The breakdown of the notion that a person is separable from the surrounds -- descriptions and explanations of the boundaries we think are there -- might (just might) change for good (and for good) our destructive ways.