A portrait of the scientist as a young artist: Or, what neuroscience can learn from dance
By Alex Gomez-Marin, PhD (Instituto de Neurociencias CSIC-UMH)
This is a case study reporting valuable things I learned from an artist. As a neuroscientist, I had the opportunity to work closely with a dancer for more than year. Rather than falling into the habit of trying to explicate her behavior or speculate about the neural correlates of dancing, I dove into the experience of movement itself. I saw the work of the artist, but I also saw the artist at work. Curiosity led to sympathy, and sympathy to empathy. I decided to work with her and like her. Within that interaction, it was obvious and paradoxical how the “yoga of objectivity,” so necessary in science, can numb the ability to be present to the phenomenon itself. Following the artist’s footsteps in her practice, the scientist has a new opportunity to make of his experimental data no surrogate for the felt presence of immediate experience: theory becomes embodied - experiments are lived.
Reflecting on this experience, I distilled “ten simple rules” which serve as a brief and personal account of the virtual and actual impact of the methods of the arts in science. Art often gains from science’s products; here I illustrate how science can benefit from art’s processes (especially with regards to creativity). In an era stamped by the urge to produce, an invitation for attentive disinterestedness, a plea for the usefulness of the useless, is both timely and necessary. Engagement with the artist’s Umwelt transforms the scientist’s Umgebung. Thus, the future scientist shall be that artist who does not cease to be a scientist.
1. Take your time. The first hint about creativity is that if you rush, you lose it. Like cooking a soup or making love, creativity’s highest preoccupation is not with efficiency. We want to cut to the chase and get as much stuff done as quickly as possible. But the creative process (precisely because it is a process) just takes time. Whether you choose the meme of classical physics that “all is given at once” or the counter-intuitive idea that “the possible does not precede the real,” the future is really the best ally of creative work. Sleeping on a problem helps to reveal a solution. In the lab, you do not need to go to bed. Instead, you can use a timer: define the task, set a minimal duration, and dive into it. See the difference between what you thought beforehand and what happened as the timer beeped. Don’t be obsessed with being creative in a hurry. Just start by providing the first condition for creativity to happen: time. Remember that time is on your side. Motto: time will tell (in Portuguese,“logo se vê”).
2. Give primacy to action. Try not to commit to any ideology from the start. Speculate as little as possible and experiment as much as you can. In other words, if one plans too much, nothing really gets done. Do not focus on predicting what will happen next; you do not know it nor can you know it. Stubborn efforts to foresee one solution essentially drown any other. We need to overcome the inertia of school, where we spent years sitting on a chair all day long, barely moving and just listening to the teacher tell us the acceptable answer. So, don’t over-think or better, use thought in action: say what comes through your head at that moment, take a pen and draw, stand up and move. Major thinkers created in motion, i.e. during daily walks. A great idea might be very close but, if you do not move, it might take you a thousand years to find it. Motto: let’s just do it (“vamos a fazer agora”).
3. Self-experiment. Suspend the object-subject distinction, which is very ingrained in our training as scientists. Allow experiment to merge with experience. Creativity requires different perspectives. It is possible to gain valuable insight on a phenomenon from the inside. We can verbalize it, formalize it and analyze it later. Participation, not just detached observation (or computation), opens many doors of creativity. Be your own “model organism” for a while: if you are a computational biologist analyzing the collective behavior of a flock of fish, can you imagine how it must feel to be one of those fish? You might have spent hours writing code to analyze such data but, have you ever spent more than five minutes watching the phenomenon? How to switch between third and first person experience? To know the world, know thyself. In oneself, experiment and experience merge. Motto: try it out by yourself, on yourself (“podes experimentar contigo”).
4. Repetition makes a difference. Repetition is one of the bases of the scientific method. The assumption of “restoration of initial conditions” allows the machinery of statistics to quantitatively let us know whether the phenomena under study deserves the certificate of general fact, or must remain as a collection of anecdotes (interestingly, anecdote etymologically means “not published”). Art teaches us to use repetition in a different way; indeed the same way life evolved: by variation and selection. Try this exercise: in preparing for a talk, rehearse it and, as soon as you finish (with no comment or discussion whatsoever), repeat it again from scratch. In copying yourself, unexpected variations occur. Both what remains and what changes is good material. Repetition belongs to a whole family of “creative technology” that can be used deliberately, such as iteration, deconstruction, negation, adaptation, declination, reproduction, recurrence, and recursion. Why are we so diligent in repeating the same experiment tens of times, but reluctant to repeat an experience twice? Motto: one more time (“repetimos mais uma vez”).
5. Postpone judgement. One big enemy of creativity is premature judgement. If you are trying to create something new, you do not know yet what that is. And so, it is very likely that when you see it for the first time, you won’t recognize it. So, a golden rule is to postpone judgement. Our critic always has a say, both when we talk to others and when we listen to our own thoughts. Tell him: “not now, we’ll see later.” The sword of reason, permanently unsheathed to protect us from falsehood and error, too often kills an idea when it is still a proto-idea. In creativity, appropriateness is more important than the correctness. If the critic insists, simply ask: “is it good enough for now and safe enough to try?” In the end, bad ideas will fall down by themselves. We don’t need to decide a priori. A wonderful exercise to practice this rule is silence. Not everything needs to be clear and discussed at the start (nor at the end). The scientific process will then feel less of a battle and more of a joyful trip. Motto: shall I answer later? (“posso responder mais tarde?”).
6. Embody your brain. Too often neuroscientists regard their body as a way to transport their brains to meetings. Yet, neurons without muscles are mute. Think with your body too. The sense of embodiment can be practiced in the studio, as an extension of the lab: sit on the ground rather than on a chair, walk barefoot, or simply exploring the space around. During a scientific discussion, for example, stand up (note how conditioned we are!) and move to another place in the room; notice how this helps change your point of view (physically and mentally). Similarly, you do not need to be glued in place like a flag-stick while giving a presentation. Acknowledge your posture and breath as tools for thought. You don’t need to carry all the weight of creativity in your head. Motto: let me embody it (“tenho que ver com o meu corpo”).
7. Warm up to tune in. We can prepare the slides for an important talk weeks or even months in advance. Yet, when it comes to the “show,” we spare nor more than ten minutes of preparation, just to check that the connector is working and rush to the toilet. Warm up should be taken seriously. Artists start preparing two or three hours before each performance or training session. Athletes do the same. But why do scientists have such a professional habit of hardly warming up beyond a quick coffee-to-go while checking the email? Next time you give a talk or lead a meeting, spend 20 minutes alone in the room, stretch and shake your body, sing and massage your face, close your eyes and breath, meditate. At a group level, warm up involves a warm hello to everyone. Also, when possible, collectively open and close the day in a round. See what changes. Motto: I must warm up (“preciso de fazer um aquecimento”).
8. Play. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Mistakes are optimal seeds for creativity. Have fun. Learning only goes through trial and error. To miss the mark makes sense. Turn off logic, reputation and seriousness. Just try things out. Entertain any “what if?” That is how the unknown lends itself to discovery. Give yourself space and time to err fruitfully. As a simple scientific practice, show to your colleagues what you have (ideas, results, etc.) precisely when you are not ready. Improvise, subvert and doubt the obvious. Retreats or an open lab culture are good environments for that. At the other extreme of performing under pressure we must find space to just play. Give yourself permission to explore the “irrational.” To play is to take risks in the safest possible way. Motto: show me what you have right now (“mostra-me o que tens agora”).
9. Keep a record. This rule has no mystery: document your own endeavors. Write down what works and what doesn’t. In a sort of hybrid between a lab notebook and a personal diary, annotate your trials and errors in the creative process. Document and audit your own methodology (this is what I did during my collaboration with the dancer, and condensed it into these ten rules). Revisiting the process shall make you less concerned with the product. Motto: write it down in a notebook (“vou apontar no caderno”).
10. Be here now. We are here, but are we really here? One cannot afford one’s own absence. In the current praise for high-throughput, automated and so-called unbiased (actually unsupervised) methods, the scientist not only forgets to be present but makes a huge effort to be absent. We tend to decenter ourselves. But, in order to create, you need to be here and now. Motto: I need your presence (“preciso da tua presença”).
Outlook. Creativity is always at work, always available. We just need to avoid the habits in us that reject it. The irreducibility of the organism to the machine mirrors that of art to science. The dancer, recalling the intuition of the philosopher, affirms in front of the scientist that the creation of unforeseeable novelty is continuously going on in the universe.
Comic strip illustrating the ten rules (image credits to Aleix Alva).
I thank Sara Anjo for showing me all these rules during our intense collaboration within the project “Roots of Curiosity — Time of Science and Art” co-produced by the Centro Cultural de Belém and by the Fundação Champalimaud in Lisbon, Portugal.
Alex Gomez-Marin is a physicist by training. In 2008 he earned a PhD in physics studying the microscopic origins of the macroscopic arrow of time. After obtaining a Masters in biophysics, he switched from pen-and-paper calculations to experimental and computational neuroscience. At the EMBL-CRG (Barcelona) he investigated how fly larvae navigate in odor landscapes. In 2013 he moved to the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (Lisbon), to study learning in mice and locomotion in worms and flies. In 2014 Alex was one of the scientists involved in the trans-disciplinary project "Roots of Curiosity" at the Centro Cultural de Belém. In 2016 he started his own laboratory at the Instituto de Neurociencias (Alicante), searching for principles of behavior across species. His quest to understand the nature of biological movement lies at the intersection of neuroscience, philosophy, and art.