The Conscious Brain

Image courtesy of Hanna Damasio / Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center, USC

Wednesday night I attended a synapse-crackling lecture by Antonio Damasio at REDCAT titled “Art and the Conscious Brain.” Dr. Damasio is the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, and is known as an international leader in neuroscience. And on top of all that impressiveness, he focuses on the elements of consciousness that speak to the most personal in our daily lives: creativity, emotions, memory, decision-making, and communication.

Dr. Damasio admitted that he accepted the invitation to speak at REDCAT in a moment of weakness, for to scratch the surface on the subject of art and the brain could take weeks of lectures and more. However, he succeeded in delivering a lecture about the brain, mind, and consciousness that even I could understand—and I know as much about neuroscience as I know how to drive the space shuttle to Jupiter.

One subject that set my brain alight was the element of consciousness that Dr. Damasio described as “Cognitive Expansion,” which is “expanded memory, imagination, reasoning/intuition, problem solving, language, planning, and navigating the future.” During the Q&A I asked Dr. Damasio if he saw any room for expansion of cognitive expansion—a sort of super-intuition, if you will, or hyper-memory and computer-speed problem solving—or if he sees mankind’s creation of intelligent machines that mimic our daily processes, like computers and smart phones, as causing our cognitive space to collapse in on itself. In answer, Dr. Damasio said that one of his concerns is that we have created machines that process very quickly, and though they are doing the work that we would normally have to do, we don’t just sit back and have some tea while they chug away—we follow along with them and in turn have become more adept at multitasking and processing multiple sources of information. The potential downside of this is that each action we process should elicit a feeling, and the more actions we undertake at once, the less cognitive room there is for those feelings to fully form, thus our emotional state could be compromised in the process.

So what does this all have with do with art? According to Dr. Damasio, one explanation for art is that it’s a side effect of the brain’s compensation for a loss of balance in socio-cultural homeostasis—or, the ability to maintain stability throughout all social and cultural stresses. Putting two and two together and after processing all that the brilliant Dr. Damasio had to say, it pleases me that art and creativity keep our minds on track, and I think that art may well give the brain what it needs to do some exciting cognitive expanding.

Sarah Bay Williams

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