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Author Topic: Is there something in the brain that allows us to be an artist?  (Read 5525 times)

Debabrata Deb

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Debabrata Deb  asked the Naked Scientists:

Dear Dr. Chris,

I am a Indian student studying in Austria (Karl-Franzens-University Graz). I just could not keep myself  away anymore from congratulating you for your absolutely marvellous PODCAST!!! Thanks for such a tasty weekly diet of my scientific mind.

Here I have a question, rather I should say a set of questions but about the same phenomena : Why every one of us can not become an artist, a writer, a poet, a musician, a painter, a manager of a Bank or a 'Naked Scientists' who can cook such a nice scientific diet for every one? Exactly what part of our brain does regulate that? Is there any genetic reason? Or this is determined by our environment where we grow up and live?

There is particular reason why I am asking this question. I always wanted to be an artist!!! But unfortunately I am not one. What I understand is that the most distinctive attribute of an artist is that he/she can replicate his imagination on a canvas. I can also imagine many things in my mind but I can not articulate my imagination in the form of dots and lines. Why this happens?

The importance of the question is that if we can know the answers, then probably we can regulate our brain to help some people to become master of other creative arena :)

Carry ON

Debabrata Deb

What do you think?
« Last Edit: 08/06/2008 22:04:02 by chris »


 

Offline JimBob

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I my personal experience,it seems that the artistic mind is somehow "wired" differently, i.e., the brain functions along different neural pathways.

I have a friend of 27 years who is an incredible artist. He sees things first as shapes and colors, not as objects. The recognition of it being a specific object having a function comes later - sometimes minutes later. He becomes enmeshed in the curves, surfaces, color and then starts to piece the object into his thoughts.

I must admit this is only one artist but I do feel that there must be a special pathway between the eye and the hand controling the brush that is different for artists.
 

Offline LeeE

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I'm inclined to disagree with JB:)

I have some competence in music (playing guitar) and the visual arts (through drawing to photgraphy but now 3D CGI) and in both of these areas, at least to me, there is clearly a 'use it or lose it' factor which extends beyond the physical skills and into thinking in the right way - remembering to listen to what I'm hearing and see what I'm looking at, as a conscious act, and fitting that in with what I've learned.

Certainly, there are some people who can pick up these skills and abilities with seemingly effortless ease but there are many more who only get there by hard work and lots of practice.

I think the biggest problem for someone who wants to 'do art' but believes that they can't is that, unless they are one of the few people to whom it does come naturally, their very first efforts are probably going to be rubbish, and therefore disappointing.  They may come up with a really good idea but because they can't express it straight away it can put them off from trying again.  I think it's a very good example of 'fear of failure'.
 

Offline graham.d

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I agree with the other posts here. I also play a guitar a little but realise my considerable limitations here and note, with regret, that whilst I have improved with practice, it would take about 100 years for me to get as good as Gary Moore or Mark Knopfler let alone any of the great classical or Jazz guitarists. Compare this with Mozart who was composing and playing difficult clavier pieces at the age of five. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's father was very musically talented, but, although he did help to inspire, encourage and help young Wolfgang, it seems much more likely that the talent was one he was born with and therefore genetic.

It seems to me that the genetics can predefine the brain so that it can make it easier to be "wired up" in certain ways. This can become even more reinforced when the parents also help the child in the same direction, as in the case of Mozart. The genetic predisposition is not always obviously from the parents skills though. The parents may never have had the opportunity to exercise and hone the innate skills they had; indeed they may not even know they had them. Also the genetic predisposition may have resulted from a complex combination of inherited brain structure so that neither parent have the ability that the offspring has.

That said, I still get enjoyment from playing a guitar as I did from playing cricket for many years. I did improve my cricket over time but realised, no matter how much I practiced, I would never get to be any better than a certain level.

I was good at maths when I was at school, to the extent that I rarely had to even think about it. It was just easy. But I did note that the problem with this was that I did not develop the disciplines (at least, not then) to grasp some of the more complicated maths at University. I had never been taught to learn the hard way, so I found it difficult doing more advanced theoretical physics when the maths was, unfortunately, just not obvious any more. Even some of the great mathematicians have said that they find they hit a "ceiling" of understanding in some areas. As Clint Eastwood said in one of the Dirty Harry movies "A man has to know his limitations". :-)

In understanding the genetic influences on the brain, specifically in language, I would recommend reading the books by Prof. Steven Pinker.
 

Offline LeeE

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The problem I have with genetic influences on ability is that it seems to me that genetic differences should result in physical differences but as far as I'm aware, the only major physical differences in peoples brains that have been identified link to different forms of illness or disability.

Personally, I favour the software approach.  People's physical brains are fundimentally the same, much as everyone's PCs are essentially the same, but what they can do depends much more upon the software that's installed than to the relatively minor differences in hardware, which only usually makes things run faster or slower.
 

Offline graham.d

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I think you should think the genetic aspect as firmware or as sophisticated ROM code. Chomsky, and as later explained in layman's terms by Pinker, showed that there was a basic substructure inately built into the brain that encodes our ability to understand language. The argument is compelling and, to me at least, is totally convincing. This is not a variable that is subject to the local genetics of one set of parents to another, but is nonetheless genetic in that it is part of being a human being. This preset ability allows us to understand language with ease and not have to try to acquire all the rules after birth - the basic rules are in ROM. This ability is, nonetheless, genetic. It seems reasonable, given that such a predisposition occurs, that variations that depend on more variable genetics is also likely. I feel that it is obvious that we are not all born the same and with a "clean slate", to quote a way of expressing this view. Separating genetic and cultural influences has been the subject of many experiments, especially those with identical twins separated at birth. The conclusions would point to significant genetic dependance, though, as you can imagine, there is much contraversy because some feel that such a conclusion has political consequences. The conclusion does not deny that there is also significant cultural influences too; interestingly, moreso from peer groups than parents. It seems that parent's influence is primarily genetic!! A surprising conclusion that is still in debate.
« Last Edit: 08/06/2008 21:47:48 by graham.d »
 

Offline LeeE

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I'm happy to go along with "This preset ability allows us to understand language with ease and not have to try to acquire all the rules after birth - the basic rules are in ROM"

But I can't agree with "It seems reasonable, given that such a predisposition occurs, that variations that depend on more variable genetics is also likely".

If this is the case, wouldn't there be a huge variation in the degree to which people understand language?

For example, the millions of people born natively in the U.K, who have grown up learning the same fundimental language (regional dialects and accents aside) have little difficulty understanding each other at the language level.  This, to me, says that if there is any variation due to genetics it is vanishingly tiny, if present at all, and is swamped by the environmental influences, which is where those regional dialects etc. come from.
 

Offline graham.d

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Peoples' language ability does vary. I think it is a matter of degree. Although there is a basic brain structure that is common, and is obviously genetic (part of the general human genome), just like the colour of our hair, our height, length of our fingers etc etc, there are many aspects that are variations on the basic model and for which the genetic variation is from more immediate inheritance. This is true of brain structure as much as physical structure. Everyone looks recognisably human but there are also many variations creating individuality of physical structure and also brain structure.

On the subject of language, it has been shown that there is a syntactical structure common to all languages. If people are free to invent there own language from an early enough age, the language will contain all this syntactical richness. This has actually happened in the USA (I think around 1800) where there was an isolated community of deaf people who developed their own sign language which had all the syntactical features of a spoken language. If the language is developed later in life the ability to incorporate all the syntactical rules seems to diminish. Anyway, this is really an interesting aside.

Whilst there is this commonality in the basic innate ability to acquire language, there is likely to be variability in this ability. There is certainly variability in people's talents in learning languages but I would admit that separating nature from nurture here would take much study. It may have been done, I don't know. Anyhow, I don't think in this case that the variability is such that people cannot communicate, but it does seem that some people's talents for use of language or for the ability to acquire new languages, is better than for others'.

It is not hard to imagine that some people have athletic ability as a result of their physical structure, their eye-hand coordination and/or their cardio-vascular system. All gentically gifted to them and, if nurtured properly, can make them better than others who do not have these gifts. There is really no reason to suppose that the brain would also not be affected in a similar way.
 

Offline LeeE

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The mention of that isolated group of deaf people rings a bell - I think I've heard or read about that.

I don't think that athletics is a good example.  Everybody has athletic ability, but they have to pick the right sport for their physique - someone who is short and heavily built isn't going to be a good high-jumper, and someone who is tall and thin isn't going to be a good weight-lifter or shot-putter, but there's scope for everyone to achieve high athletic ability if they're prepared to put enough effort into maintaining their health, training and practice.  Of course, a person might well be gentically pre-disposed to certain health problems, which might prevent achievment of high athletic ability, but that's down to physiological factors and not mental abilities.

Going back to language, it is interesting that ability to learn seems to reduce with age, but then increasing age has nothing to do with genetics, and the age at which you find out if you're good at learning other languages really falls into this period.  As you point out, very young children seem to have little difficulty learning languages, even multiple languages at the same time if exposed to them, but there seems to be little variation in ability amoungst those children - they can all do it to pretty much the same degree.  This to me, further suggests that while an inate ability to learn languages is passed on genetically, variation in that ability should also be present if genetic variation is able to affect that learning ability - and there doesn't seem to be that degree of variability.

At least as far as I'm aware - it's not a field I particularly follow.
 

Offline graham.d

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Not everyone has the same athletic ability and the genetic variation in physique is one reason. I was not really saying that this was down to mental ability but rather that the genetic variation in physical ability shows that all humans are constructed with differing physical attributes and there is no reason to suppose that this would not extend to variations in mental ability too. Of course there is also a variation in the hand-eye coordination, which is due to the brain/nervous system. In every case people can improve any ability, and the earlier you start the better, but the extent is limited by the cards you are dealt by your genetic make-up. 

These things can be hard to disentangle. Children often quickly work out the areas where they are good or bad and tend to get disillusioned when they have difficulty and, conversely, get positive feedback in areas where they shine. This can exaggerate the effects of even minor differences. Studies with identical twins who were separated at birth and brought up entirely separately show some remarkable correlations between their skills in later life though.

I don't think it is true that all children have similar abilities at learning languages. Like all these other skills, some find it easier than others. Try reading "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker which outlines the evidence much better than I can.
 

Offline LeeE

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Is there something in the brain that allows us to be an artist?
« Reply #10 on: 10/06/2008 02:49:21 »
Heh - this is an old question that many much more eminent people than us have failed to solve, so I don't expect us to resolve it either :)

I wouldn't say that genetic inheritance cannot extend as far as influencing mental abilities but, until some sort of mechanism for transferring and storing that data is found, it can only be regarded as a possibility, and it certainly can't be regarded as a probability.

No matter how reasonable it might seem :)

For example [regarding genetic inheritance] "..there is no reason to suppose that this would not extend to variations in mental ability too" sounds completely reasonable, but if we accept that we don't understand how this supposed mechanism works, it is equally valid to say the opposite - we just don't know.  Yet.

I also think you might be on dodgy ground when you say "In every case people can improve any ability, and the earlier you start the better, but the extent is limited by the cards you are dealt by your genetic make-up".  First part - I agree.  Second part - sounds reasonable...  but nothing more than that.

Twin experiments are very interesting but I don't see how they prove anything with regard to genetic inheritance - a clone is a clone, is a clone...(no offence intended to any twins) but I think it might tell us more if they didn't show similar traits and abilities, rather than showing similarities, which just confirm their similarity.

From my point of view, I have neither the data or the expertise required to understand that data, but I still can't help thinking that if mental abilities are inherited we would see a much wider range of abilities, in fundimental abilities, such as language, than we do - there is a range of abilities, certainly, but I think it's much narrower than it should be if it were down to genetic inheritance.

What do you think of the idea of learning how to learn?
 

Offline Karen W.

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Is there something in the brain that allows us to be an artist?
« Reply #11 on: 10/06/2008 05:01:07 »
I think we all can learn better and easier way to learn and improve our skills given the chance and the willingness to reach out and try new ways.. we all learn differently so I believe we all develop ways we tend to learn best, then adapt it to new skills... never to old to learn new things!
 

Offline graham.d

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Is there something in the brain that allows us to be an artist?
« Reply #12 on: 10/06/2008 10:06:50 »
Karen, I know it is not such a nice thing to say but unfortunately one can be "too old to learn new things". It does not mean that it is impossible or that a person does not get pleasure from the activity, but the brain is less plastic as you get older so new skills become harder to acquire and retain. People vary in this respect too, and some people retain remarkable abilities to quite an age, but, in general, our abilities change with age. It is not black or white, so there is no reason to not give encouragement, but we should be realistic. What I said about children acquiring language and that, if deprived of language at an early age they cannot 100% recover all the skills, has been shown in a number of studies.

Lee, there is debate amongst experts in this area, especially in the USA, where the whole issue has become politicised. It is not right to imply there is no evidence here. There has been considerable work in this area and, to me, the evidence is compelling. In fact, to think that everyone's brains are absolutely identical at birth seems a bizarre idea given the complexity of the organ and given that all other parts of the human body ARE subject to genetic variations.
 

Offline LeeE

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Is there something in the brain that allows us to be an artist?
« Reply #13 on: 10/06/2008 18:29:59 »
I can't see where I said or implied that everyone's brains are absolutely identical at birth, and it's not something I would agree with.  People's brains are certainly different in some respects, such as size, but they are the same in respect of design, structure and components, just as our bodies are different in shape and size but share the same design.  However, the differences that are apparent in the brain appear to have no correlation to learning ability, as far as I'm aware.
 

Offline graham.d

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Is there something in the brain that allows us to be an artist?
« Reply #14 on: 11/06/2008 11:56:30 »
Lee, I'm not saying the brain is hugely different from one individual to another but just that, in the same way that people have variations in their physique and their organs, so they have variations in the balance between the numerous sub-structiures that comprise the brain. These variations results in the variations of aptitudes of different people. So, as far as the original question is concerned, I think some people have indeed got an "artistic brain" although this definition is probably nothing like complex enough. I would certainly assume that all people have many talents and abilities, which are not always drawn out because they are not nurtured; this maybe because of poor opportunities to do so or because their innate abilities are not recognised or may even be ones that are not valued by the individual or the society into which he was born. 

 

Offline LeeE

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Is there something in the brain that allows us to be an artist?
« Reply #15 on: 11/06/2008 14:07:36 »
I think that until something is identified within the brain that both correlates to artistic ability and can be genetically linked, I'm going to have to remain sceptical.

I can accept that the evidence certainly suggests that it's possible to genetetically inherit mental abilities but, as far as I'm aware, there's still no clear indication of what mechanism is enabling it.
 

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Is there something in the brain that allows us to be an artist?
« Reply #15 on: 11/06/2008 14:07:36 »

 

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