See, Hear, Feel

EP85: Dr. Edward Vessel on neuroaesthetics and self-relevance

October 25, 2023 Professor Christine J Ko, MD Season 1 Episode 85
See, Hear, Feel
EP85: Dr. Edward Vessel on neuroaesthetics and self-relevance
Show Notes Transcript

Hopefully we are all lucky to know the feeling of being lit up. Dr. Ed Vessel studies how neural networks in the brain light up when we are aesthetically moved. I think of this as a type of awe or wonder - when we experience being moved in this way, our so-called "default mode network" becomes very active. The default mode network is generally suppressed unless we are being introspective. Activating this default mode network via experiencing deeply moving artwork can perhaps be a source of renewal, with relevance to living healthfully. Dr. Edward Vessel, PhD is the Eugene Surowitz Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, City College of New York, The City University of New York. Previously, he was a Senior Research Scientist in the Department of Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Germany. He has also spent time as a Fellow, Professor, and Scientist at New York University. He studied under Irving Biederman at The University of Southern California for his PhD in Neuroscience and obtained his undergraduate degree in Cognitive Science with Honors at The Johns Hopkins University. He researches neuroaesthetics and how self-relevant visual art impacts emotion and cognition in a positive way. He has written about his work in American Scientist.

[00:00:00] Christine Ko: Welcome back to SEE HEAR FEEL. Today, I'm with Dr. Edward Vessel. Dr. Edward Vessel, PhD is the Eugene Surowitz Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, City College of New York, The City University of New York. Previously, he was a Senior Research Scientist in the Department of Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Germany. He has also spent time as a fellow, professor, and scientist at New York University. He studied under Irving Biederman at the University of Southern California for his PhD in Neuroscience and obtained his undergraduate degree in Cognitive Science with Honors at the Johns Hopkins University. He researches neuroaesthetics and how self-relevant visual art impacts emotion and cognition in a positive way.

[00:00:49] Welcome to Ed. 

[00:00:51] Ed Vessel: Hi there. Thanks for having me. 

[00:00:52] Christine Ko: Thank you for being here. Could you first share a brief personal anecdote? 

[00:00:57] Ed Vessel: I got my training in vision science, but my own personal kind of creative passions are a bit more in the area of music. Years ago I got very involved in electronic music and underground music and DJ'd for a number of years. Some of my own most moving art experiences have actually probably been out at Burning Man, where you see large scale participatory art that blows up, very engaging and participatory and interactive.

[00:01:23] Christine Ko: That's really cool. Can you define neuroaesthetics? 

[00:01:27] Ed Vessel: The simplest definition is that it's the neuroscience of aesthetic experiences. So can we understand what's happening from a psychological and also a brain perspective when we have a moving aesthetic experience, when we find something beautiful. There's something about finding something aesthetically appealing that leads to a change in how large scale brain networks are interacting with each other. We're starting to tap into what's going on inside the person's head that is causing certain information to resonate with them more. 

[00:01:57] Christine Ko: How do you think that neuroaesthetics is relevant to healthcare, to doctors and patients?

[00:02:04] Ed Vessel: I think that's a really great question. I was wondering, would you like me to like generally explain the result from the study first before going into that or do you? 

[00:02:11] Christine Ko: Yeah, sure. Whatever you want. 

[00:02:13] Ed Vessel: Okay so in this study, we basically designed a custom set of images for you based upon a questionnaire you filled out. You said, oh, I grew up in Colorado, and I just recently went on vacation to Ireland, and I'm really into roller skating, and so we might find images related to those things, then artify them, so we have an art set that contains personally relevant information for you. And then we can do the same for somebody else. And then we have you come in, and you rate a bunch of art images, some real art that everybody sees, and then some artworks that were designed specifically for you as well as some artworks that were designed for somebody else.

[00:02:45] So all of these artworks were designed for somebody, but some just weren't necessarily designed for you. We find this really big effect, where the artworks that were specifically designed for you get this big boost where you find them more aesthetically appealing.

[00:02:58] I think that it works because aesthetics are really related to sense making, to information foraging, to being able to reduce uncertainty. And so when an artwork contains information that relates to you and your history, to where you grew up, to your identity; when that information about ourself is present, It provides us with a bit of a roadmap or a key where we can unlock deeper levels of meaning and go deeper into the artwork and get more from it. We can get more understanding from it, and then we get more pleasure from it. 

[00:03:29] Media companies, for example, a lot of them are building their business model on being able to create a personalized profile of their consumer and then serve them up personally relevant information. We all are aware that it works, right? We can get so stuck in a feed because they know just how long we're willing to scroll before they give us something that we're like really excited about again, yeah. And it's, Ooh, okay. Yeah, that one's more what I'm looking for.

[00:03:55] These mechanisms can perhaps be a bit used against us, but also, again, these types of brain states are energetically expensive where it can be hard to maintain them for very long periods of time. When you really get into something, when you're really in the flow, it can feel effortless, but then often you're drained afterwards, Or, if you go to a museum and you go through a whole exhibit, it can be thrilling and exhilarating, but then you're just like afterwards, ugh, I just need a break

[00:04:21] Christine Ko: Does it relate to health care?

[00:04:23] Ed Vessel: They're actually some really interesting relationships here. One of the things that happens when people start suffering some certain forms of dementia is they're unhappy, they take a hit in mood. And part of it might be because they're just not getting the joy from everyday interactions that they normally would. They can't follow a conversation as well. They're not understanding the references of jokes. They're just generally not able to make as much sense of the world around them, including art and music and conversations and other forms of culture. You may be familiar with what's called the reminiscence bump in music, which is this finding that oftentimes the music genre that people prefer most is the genre that was first coming out when they were a late teenager or something like that, right?

[00:05:06] There's this critical period where, you know, that music, we went into the deepest. And even later in life, we still think that's the best music. I imagine that you could use this technique of creating personalized art, perhaps in a therapeutic context or in a context where you're trying to provide some additional enrichment environments for people who have dementia by making reference to things that have happened in their own life, to their own lived experience, that they could go deeper and get more pleasure from it and perhaps get more of the benefits that we see that art therapy can have. The protective effect of cultural engagement. 

[00:05:43] Christine Ko: Typically in health care, we don't really think about how, for one thing, even art is therapeutic, whether it's music or whether it's something visual.

[00:05:52] Ed Vessel: There is actually a big increasing movement in this. Art can be therapeutic. Art can promote well-being. I've been making a bit of more connections in a growing area, generally called arts and health or NeuroArts. The idea there is to raise awareness about the fact that access to culture is really critical. A lot of us learned during the pandemic that this isn't just about art. It's also about just other aesthetic experiences as well. So, if you weren't able to visit a museum, or if you weren't able to go for a walk through a park, if you had no access to outdoor space, you were really having a hard time. A lot of people, I think, probably delved deeply into their music collections to get through a lot of that time. Other forms of performance and interaction and culture as well were just very helpful. Our well-being takes a hit when we don't have those things, and I think that's being recognized more. 

[00:06:40] But then also the explicit usefulness of art in hospitals. I was actually just recently up at a little tour of the artwork up at the NYC Health and Hospitals Harlem Hospital, where the hospital has a lot of large scale murals in it, some of which were originally built by the WPA, the Works Project Administration, from like the, I guess the '30s, basically. And they've actually got quite a big collection of artwork that they put in the hospital, and the patients love it, but also so do the doctors. It's also really therapeutic for the doctors and nurses and staff who work in the hospital. Many of them are at a breaking point, kind of because of COVID and post COVID, and need support as well. Having a work environment where there are things around you that give you bits of joy and allow you to engage with them, on the walls... a number of the doctors were telling anecdotes how even just before going in to see a patient, they might look at this piece of artwork, and it both helps them calm down, but then also helps them be more humane with their patient. Just reminded of their humanity.

[00:07:45] So I think that, there's both a more direct, interventional, therapeutic route, as well as more passive changes in the environment route. There's a lot of movement in the direction of seeing the arts as a very inexpensive way to improve health. 

[00:08:00] Christine Ko: Okay. It sounds like it's hugely beneficial. 

[00:08:03] Ed Vessel: I would guess so. Yeah, and I think that the evidence is starting to roll in on that. So I do think that, yeah, we need to cultivate these. I think it's probably the case that, too much of anything is, too much of a good thing, could be problematic.

[00:08:13] There is a limit to how much we can sustain these brain processes... it's about striking that balance. Having those moments where we can really have these more expansive thoughts, these moments of awe, these moments of inspiration. They push us forward, but inherently they're not a constant state that we're in all the time.

[00:08:30] A lot of what we've been doing in the lab is trying to figure out, what does this mean

[00:08:33] When people find something aesthetically pleasing, if I'm showing you a piece of artwork, you generally expect that the visual system is going to be engaged, right? And that, indeed, we find, right? We can show somebody a piece of artwork and we see that visual pathways are more active than when you are looking at a blank screen. 

[00:08:51] On the other hand, there are other parts of the brain, the default mode network, that were found to basically show suppression.

[00:08:58] Christine Ko: The default mode network. Can you explain that? 

[00:09:02] Ed Vessel: The default mode network, it's a brain network that seems to have internal focus, a unified network of brain regions that seem to be involved in inwardly focused processing. So when you are thinking about yourself, when you're thinking about, what am I going to do tomorrow? Like mind wandering, that internal monologue or, when you're so lost in your internal thoughts. During those moments, those are moments when the default mode network seems to be really engaged. 

[00:09:27] Do people actually like the same thing? What we find is that when you show people images of faces, that in fact people do show quite strong agreement. It's not 100%, but if I know your set of ratings for a set of faces, then I can predict somebody else's quite well. And the same is true for natural landscapes. It's not quite as strong, but similarly, if you rate a particular mountain scene to be very beautiful, and you rate a particular scrabbly, muddy ravine to be less beautiful. That's going to be pretty predictive of somebody else's ratings as well. But now when you move to something like artwork or architecture. You find that people are self consistent, but there's no longer a very strong sense of shared taste. So your ratings for a set of artwork are not actually very predictive of somebody else's at all. About a decade ago now, we surprisingly found that when you show people artwork that they find highly moving, and only for those paintings that they rate as highly aesthetically moving, we find that the default mode network is no longer suppressed and actually becomes active. Highly aesthetically moving paintings, it's a signal that kind of tells your DMN, this internally focused network, that you should pay attention. Partly because of these findings, we started thinking about self relevance. 

[00:10:44] Christine Ko: Yeah. What does it mean when art is self-relevant? 

[00:10:48] Ed Vessel: We say that something is self relevant if it is related to your self construct, for example, your identity or your autobiographical memories; the things where if you were meeting somebody for the first time, you might tell them to give them a sense for who you are, or you could also think these might be some of the things you would put on like a dating profile or something.

[00:11:10] What is it that's different and unique about me that really makes me different from somebody else? That's the way that we're trying to define self relevance here. 

[00:11:19] Christine Ko: When you were talking about the default mode network, saying that it's a network that is active when I'm introspective. I feel like I'm most myself in a certain way when I'm in my own head. And then for me, personally, when there is something beautiful that can move me to tears, I feel like it's external to me. But, if, say, my default mode network is being activated, maybe I am in that moment very much myself, but slightly more out in the world than when I'm just thinking.

[00:11:55] Ed Vessel: Around the same time that we found this engagement of the DMN by highly moving artwork, there were also some other reports that certain types of meditation, for example, can also lead to a change in these large scale network dynamics.

[00:12:10] So again, if you think about under most circumstances, that inward focus versus external focus tend to be antagonistic and mutually inhibit, you have this kind of like standard, "business as usual consciousness" where you're either like out there or in here, and they're pretty divorced from each other. We flip back and forth, perhaps quickly.

[00:12:30] Maybe it's the case that certain meditative states, and others kind of states, can break that wall down a little bit, moments where the external world can influence ourself a bit more, or it might be moments where we are like really integrating the external world into ourself. When these network dynamics change , they're relatively rare states, right? And they're probably energetically demanding states of high plasticity, of high change across the network. 

[00:12:55] Christine Ko: Do you think they're relatively rare? 

[00:12:57] Ed Vessel: They're definitely rare within the typical canon of cognitive tasks you might study in a brain scanner, right? Especially to get a really strong response, right? For example, when we show people artworks, we have a very diverse set of artworks, and I think I feel generally lucky if they report that they're moved by 20 percent of the artworks, right?

[00:13:21] And of course, you have some people who only find a handful of them moving; when you have people looking at artwork, most artworks are "meh" for most people. Certainly we can cultivate those moments where we might be walking down the street, and we can slow ourselves down and become more observant of the world around us and find the beauty and the interest and the delight in the everyday world around us.

[00:13:41] And, yeah, many of us do go out and listen to music or we go watch a performance and sometimes we can be really absorbed and engaged and sometimes also find things really moving. But yeah, I would say that it's relatively rare and definitely, not well represented in the set of cognitive states that are the primary focus of most of neural research.

[00:14:03] Christine Ko: Okay. That's cool.

[00:14:06] Do you have any final thoughts? 

[00:14:08] Ed Vessel: I'm excited to see how these kinds of ideas start to actually translate in to improve therapies or improve healing. Or can we leverage some of this these ideas to help students tap into intrinsic motivation better? If we are reintroducing aesthetics and arts into a STEM education, can you actually make things stick better by engaging people's own intrinsic motivation and the pleasure they get from learning?

[00:14:33] Christine Ko: I love it. Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this with me. 

[00:14:37] Ed Vessel: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.