— Cultural Sources of Newness

Could neuroscience help research on the impacts of artistic interventions in organizations?


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Listening in the sleepless early morning hours to a BBC radio 4 documentary about advances in neuroscience and their implications for society, I began to wonder: might there be something in this for my research on the impacts of artistic interventions in organizations? In a series of three programs, Matthew Taylor, former strategy advisor to Tony Blair and now Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) offers listeners the opportunity to hear proponents and critics of the nascent field of neuroscience and society. The argument in the third program in the series is that the majority of decisions are made unconsciously by the brain, a factor that neuro-marketers and some policymakers are trying to take advantage of by “talking directly to the brain” in order to direct human behaviour towards (what they consider to be) desirable ends. The program gives examples of research and practice, for example about influencing fast food choices, election campaigns and reducing patient no-show rates for their doctors’ appointments.

What might such research have to do with artistic interventions in organizations? Several statements in the program struck me as potentially relevant.

Most obvious is the connection with music, because “music is fastest way to get to the amygdale, which runs our emotions”. Music is one of the art forms that are used in artistic interventions—and artistic interventions are often referred to as a way of engaging the emotions and temporarily suspending judgment in order to enable participants to entertain a wider range of possibilities than usual in the organizational culture. The experts report that neuroscience can help uncover how preferences and tastes are generated by the automatic and social brain. Steve Taylor has pointed out the problem of “aesthetic muteness” –the difficulty of expressing aesthetic dimensions of experience in words. So maybe research methods that “go directly to the brain” would reveal what is happening better than asking people about things they cannot find the words to express?

There was mention of “imitation neurons” that sounded interesting too: research on monkeys shows that neurons in their brains get activated in the same way when they watch someone pick up a peanut as when they pick it up themselves, from which scientists conclude that brains do not operate as independently of each other as we assume, they are actually socially interconnected.  I have not yet quite figured out how this fits in with artistic interventions, but that might come in the course of my thinking today….

It is tempting to add to my research tool-kit a cap studded with electrodes hooked up to electroencephalogram to track the brain activity of artists, managers, and employees. I could collect data while they engage with different art forms, for example. Or I might have to ask them to imagine engaging in the different art forms while they are in an MRI scanner. Apparently that research method worked for a study a decade or so ago in which scientists identified true love in the brain by asking people to look at a photograph of a beloved and that of a friend. They successfully “isolated” true love by subtracting the findings of the latter from the former—well, at least it worked for the researchers who published results to great acclaim, as I learned today from a lecture at the RSA by “former” (?) neuroscientist Ray Tallis.

Wouldn’t it be pretty impressive to collect and publish such “hard” data, given that neuroscience is being brought into so many domains of research in society today?  However, I realize that I need to be aware of the risk of becoming infected with what Ray Tallis dubs the trend as “neuromania,” particularly because he points out that “voodoo correlations” are resulting from such studies.

Although I am not (yet?) persuaded that my next research projects will involve electrode-studded caps or MRI machines, my interest in the connection between the arts and neurosciences continues unabated. It was first ignited a couple of years ago when I read Jonah Lehrer’s stimulating book Proust was a Neuroscientist. The author illustrates chapter by chapter how artists discovered through their own research methods, by engaging in bodily ways of knowing, concepts that neuroscientists are only just now starting to recognize.

So maybe I should pursue a multipronged research strategy: a) go out and find some neuroscientists who will put on their special thinking caps for me in their labs and machines, while b) I continue to observe and listen to what the artists, employees, managers, entrepreneurs and intermediaries say that they are thinking, feeling and noticing during and after their experiences with artistic interventions; and given that c) Matthew Taylor ends his program series with insights from physicians working with techniques of “mindfulness”, whereby people actively develop their awareness of their otherwise unconsciously driven responses to their environment—it is now time for me to hone my research skills by putting away the computer and practicing some mindful yoga.