Artists May Have Different Brains (More Grey Matter) Than the Rest of Us, According to a Recent Scientific Study

Image Pho­to cour­tesy of the Lab­o­ra­to­ry of Neu­ro Imag­ing at UCLA.

Sometimes—as in the case of neuroscience—scientists and researchers seem to be say­ing sev­er­al con­tra­dic­to­ry things at once. Yes, oppos­ing claims can both be true, giv­en dif­fer­ent con­text and lev­els of descrip­tion. But which is it, Neu­ro­sci­en­tists? Do we have “neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty”—the abil­i­ty to change our brains, and there­fore our behav­ior? Or are we “hard-wired” to be a cer­tain way by innate struc­tures.

The debate long pre­dates the field of neu­ro­science. It fig­ured promi­nent­ly in the work, for exam­ple, of John Locke and oth­er ear­ly mod­ern the­o­rists of cognition—which is why Locke is best known as the the­o­rist of tab­u­la rasa. In “Some Thoughts Con­cern­ing Edu­ca­tion,” Locke most­ly denies that we are able to change much at all in adult­hood.

Per­son­al­i­ty, he rea­soned, is deter­mined not by biol­o­gy, but in the “cra­dle” by “lit­tle, almost insen­si­ble impres­sions on our ten­der infan­cies.” Such imprints “have very impor­tant and last­ing con­se­quences.” Sor­ry, par­ents. Not only did your kid get wait-list­ed for that elite preschool, but their future will also be deter­mined by mil­lions of sights and sounds that hap­pened around them before they could walk.

It’s an extreme, and unsci­en­tif­ic, con­tention, fas­ci­nat­ing as it may be from a cul­tur­al stand­point. Now we have psy­che­del­ic-look­ing brain scans pop­ping up in our news feeds all the time, promis­ing to reveal the true ori­gins of con­scious­ness and per­son­al­i­ty. But the con­clu­sions drawn from such research are ten­ta­tive and often high­ly con­test­ed.

So what does sci­ence say about the eter­nal­ly mys­te­ri­ous act of artis­tic cre­ation? The abil­i­ties of artists have long seemed to us god­like, drawn from super­nat­ur­al sources, or chan­neled from oth­er dimen­sions. Many neu­ro­sci­en­tists, you may not be sur­prised to hear, believe that such abil­i­ties reside in the brain. More­over, some think that artists’ brains are supe­ri­or to those of mediocre abil­i­ty.

Or at least that artists’ brains have more gray and white mat­ter than “right-brained” thinkers in the areas of “visu­al per­cep­tion, spa­tial nav­i­ga­tion and fine motor skills.” So writes Kather­ine Brooks in a Huff­in­g­ton Post sum­ma­ry of “Draw­ing on the right side of the brain: A vox­el-based mor­phom­e­try analy­sis of obser­va­tion­al draw­ing.” The 2014 study, pub­lished at Neu­roIm­age, involved a very small sam­pling of grad­u­ate stu­dents, 21 of whom were artists, 23 of whom were not. All 44 stu­dents were asked to com­plete draw­ing tasks, which were then scored and com­pared to images of their brain tak­en by a method called “vox­el-based mor­phom­e­try.”

“The peo­ple who are bet­ter at draw­ing real­ly seem to have more devel­oped struc­tures in regions of the brain that con­trol for fine motor per­for­mance and what we call pro­ce­dur­al mem­o­ry,” the study’s lead author, Rebec­ca Cham­ber­lain of Belgium’s KU Leu­ven Uni­ver­si­ty, told the BBC. (Hear her seg­ment on BBC Radio 4’s Inside Sci­ence here.) Does this mean, as Art­net News claims in their quick take, that “artists’ brains are more ful­ly devel­oped?”

It’s a juicy head­line, but the find­ings of this lim­it­ed study, while “intrigu­ing,” are “far from con­clu­sive.” Nonethe­less, it marks an impor­tant first step. “No stud­ies” thus far, Cham­ber­lain says, “have assessed the struc­tur­al dif­fer­ences asso­ci­at­ed with rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al skills in visu­al arts.” Would a dozen such stud­ies resolve ques­tions about causality–nature or nur­ture? As usu­al, the truth prob­a­bly lies some­where in-between.

At Smith­son­ian, Randy Rieland quotes sev­er­al crit­ics of the neu­ro­science of art, which has pre­vi­ous­ly focused on what hap­pens in the brain when we look at a Van Gogh or read Jane Austen. The prob­lem with such stud­ies, writes Philip Ball at Nature, is that they can lead to “cre­at­ing cri­te­ria of right or wrong, either in the art itself or in indi­vid­ual reac­tions to it.” But such cri­te­ria may already be pre­de­ter­mined by cul­tur­al­ly-con­di­tioned respons­es to art.

The sci­ence is fas­ci­nat­ing and may lead to numer­ous dis­cov­er­ies. It does not, as the Cre­ators Project writes hyper­bol­i­cal­ly, sug­gest that “artists actu­al­ly are dif­fer­ent crea­tures from every­one else on the plan­et.” As Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia philoso­pher pro­fes­sor Alva Noe states suc­cinct­ly, one prob­lem with mak­ing sweep­ing gen­er­al­iza­tions about brains that view or cre­ate art is that “there can be noth­ing like a set­tled, once-and-for-all account of what art is.”

Emerg­ing fields of “neu­roaes­thet­ics” and “neu­ro­hu­man­i­ties” may mud­dy the waters between quan­ti­ta­tive and qual­i­ta­tive dis­tinc­tions, and may not real­ly answer ques­tions about where art comes from and what it does to us. But then again, giv­en enough time, they just might.

via The Cre­ators Project

Relat­ed Con­tent:

This Is Your Brain on Jane Austen: The Neu­ro­science of Read­ing Great Lit­er­a­ture

The Neu­ro­science of Drum­ming: Researchers Dis­cov­er the Secrets of Drum­ming & The Human Brain

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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