Jo Fleischhauer is talking about scent, cinnamon and green moss, about memory and sensation, art and creativity.
Her brain, undoubtedly, is making connections—why does cinnamon evoke fuzzy feel-good memories of childhood and cookies, while the scent of moss sparks a flashback to a specific moment years past, involving a pigment made out of moss.
What that means is still a mystery, but science is on the case.
Questions about the scientific underpinnings of creativity aren’t new; people have been thinking, talking and writing about the issue for more than a decade, but the advent of more sophisticated mobile brain-body imaging technology has brought the answers closer than ever before. Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, Cullen professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is among the field’s leaders, funded by the National Science Foundation and other organizations to study brain activity in people engaged in dancing, playing music, creative writing and viewing and producing visual art.
Fleischhauer, a Houston-based artist known for large and thought-provoking sculpture installations, is part of the search, as researchers track her brain activity during the research and planning phase of a major installation which will incorporate both pollen and the sense of smell into a work of art.
Contreras-Vidal’s initial goal is to learn more about the neural basis of creativity or what happens in the brain as people perform creative acts. One study of one person—n=1, in scientific terms—won’t provide all the answers, he said. But already researchers are sifting through large amounts of neurodata they believe will yield insights useful for education, medicine and neuroscience, as well as for artists and the arts.
With such wide parameters, it might be easier to describe what doesn’t interest these scientists and artists.
“I’m not interested in illustrating their work,” Fleischhauer said. She and other artists involved with Contreras-Vidal and the graduate and undergraduate students on this and related projects say it’s not about creating cool pictures.
It’s about the discovery of knowledge.
That starts, of course, with data. A lot of data. Researchers track Fleischhauer’s brain activity as she works through ideas and possibilities—walking on a treadmill, researching the botanical aspects of pollen, using a kit of essential oils and other scents to spark ideas about incorporating the olfactory sense into a three-dimensional project, all while wearing a wireless, 20-channel headset that provides a continuous electroencephalogram, or EEG reading of her brain and includes sensors to monitor head movement. A smartphone app links the brain activity with time of day, physical location and the weather, and she keeps a journal to track her thoughts and feelings, what medications she has taken, even whether she has been drinking coffee.
She wears it at home, where a video camera provides additional cues as she ponders aspects of the project, and at her studio just east of downtown Houston, on the treadmill at the gym and while walking dogs, a side job.
Going out in public wearing the headset, made by a San Diego company, Cognionics Inc., using a 3-D printer, seemed awkward at first.
“In the beginning, it was almost like getting used to wearing a prosthetic limb,” she said. Over time, it grew more comfortable, both physically and mentally.
Most people don’t ask about it when she is out in public. Those that do—Art! Science! Brainwaves!—are intrigued.
Wearing the headset necessarily changes things, to an extent. “It is making me much more conscious of what I’m thinking,” Fleischhauer said. “I am much more analytical, more conscious about remembering the threads.”
She knew ideas often began to flow after about 30 minutes on the treadmill so she now uses a stopwatch, clicking it when an idea arrives and, once off the treadmill, rushing to match those points to the specific idea.
Initially, everyone was searching for an “Ah-ha!” moment, when everything clicked into place. It turns out that for Fleischhauer, at least, inspiration isn’t one discrete moment in time.
“I’m finding my moments; they’re accumulations of lots of different things,” she said. Anything—from detailed research or a trip to the museum to watching television and listening to music—can trigger an idea. And when it happens, the headset records her brainwaves as the researchers describe it, “in action and in context,” something that can’t be done in a laboratory setting.
Her work long has incorporated science. A 2015 installation at The Mariago Collective was inspired in part by the announcement that buckyballs—soccer ball-shaped structures made up of 60 carbon atoms, first discovered at Rice University in 1985—had been found in the Magellanic Clouds close to the Milky Way. Before that, she was artist-in-residence for The University of Texas Health Science Center’s department of nanomedicine and biomedical engineering. She worked with Blaffer Art Museum and composers from Rice University on an installation at the downtown Market Square Clock Tower in 2013 and years before had used MRI brain scans transferred to umbrellas for an installation near Minute Maid Park.
She is married to a scientist, and conversations blending art and science are dinner table staples.
For this project, she is both using science as part of her art—the research about pollen and scent—and serving as a partner in the research.
Allowing researchers to tap into her brain activity—in some ways, the most hidden and intimate part of life—requires enormous trust.
“At first, I was very guarded in the journal,” she said. “Now, I’m much more likely to write, I’m frustrated. I’m excited.”
Contreras-Vidal knows an 18-month commitment and the requirement to be both physically and emotionally honest is asking a lot.
“She’s really brave,” he said. “She’s really open. In part, that’s because we’re working as a team.”
Fleischhauer provides the data, but she also controls what she provides, deciding when, where and for how long to wear the headset.
That’s part of what sets this experiment apart from others exploring the connection between the brain and creativity. Contreras-Vidal said most previous work has taken place in a lab or other controlled setting, often involving people looking at art on a computer screen, as a one-time event. The length of this study will allow researchers to learn about the creative process as it evolves.
Using a successful working artist like Fleischhauer is even more unusual.
Contreras-Vidal has collected data from dancers and musicians during public performances, but he also has approached the topic from the other side—tracking brain activity in 1,400 people as they moved through exhibitions at the Menil Collection and Blaffer Art Museum. Colleagues from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education are collecting data from a contemporary art museum in Mexico, and Contreras-Vidal regularly fields requests to participate from other museums around the world.
Initial findings on brain activity and technical information about the headsets have been published, and the researchers, including Fleischhauer, are preparing to publish early results from this experiment, as well.
They are analyzing the reams of data using machine-learning algorithms to tease out the impact of time of day, weather, location, activity, music, medications and other factors. Contreras-Vidal said they have noticed differences in brain activity depending on what Fleischhauer is doing, as well as time of day.
The goal isn’t to make Fleischhauer a “better” artist but a more “efficient” one, perhaps suggesting the best times or places to tap into creativity, he said.
For her part, Fleischhauer doesn’t expect the process to ultimately change what and how she creates. “It’s obviously feeding into what my experience is, but at the same time, when I am on the treadmill, it’s almost like a meditation. I’m not conscious of (the headset). As soon as I open my eyes, it becomes a very different thing.”
Understanding the connection between the brain and creativity has clear implications for art education and other educational projects, Contreras-Vidal said. But the possibilities for medicine and neuroscience are huge, too.
Tracking brain activity after someone takes a medication could lead to more individualized decisions about dosage and timing, he said, part of the move to personalized medicine. “It can lead to better diagnostics, better devices, better therapies,” he said. “That’s a spinoff.”
Contreras-Vidal is an investigator with the BRAIN Center, a collaboration between UH and Arizona State University, to develop new neurotechnologies for diagnosis and treatment of physical and cognitive disabilities. Better technologies, designed in part with input from experiments like the one with Fleischhauer, can lead to medical breakthroughs, he said.
He sees a future in which mobile brain-body imaging headsets could become as ubiquitous as earbuds, leading not just to precision medicine but even precision shopping, similar to the way Facebook uses algorithms to tailor what users see in their feeds. In fact, Facebook is investing in technology to address some of the same issues.
Contreras-Vidal isn’t worried about a downside to the devices and the endless stream of data, but then he pauses.
“I think it will be a benefit. On the other hand, we need to be careful, that just because we like one thing, we are not prevented from learning something new.
“It is a very careful balance.”