Your brain on art

This is Danielle, and I’m the other parent of this art baby—the Chief Science Officer at OSCILLATIONS. You’re probably wondering why an art collective needs a scientist. Most people think of art and science as being on totally different spectrums. Well, I happen to have a very different opinion on the matter, as you’ll soon discover.

I’m writing this from Silicon Valley, where the future is already here or where the apocalypse already happened, depending upon how you look at it. These days it literally depends upon which direction the wind is blowing.

In the first essay in this introductory series, Brendan seemed to have been on track to write a political manifesto. If it wasn’t obvious, he sees the world through the lens of social, cultural, and political trends. Now, I love the way Brendan’s mind works—he’s brilliant—but I’m coming from a totally different perspective. Political manifestos are a bit grandiose for my style. To be fair to Brendan, though, I let him get away with being a bit heady because I’m the same way with brain stuff. Especially when it comes to thinking about the brain on art, and why humans are so obsessed with creating it.

Ancient communication technologies

I’m a researcher at one of those big tech companies that we all have a complicated relationship with. We can’t imagine life without them, but they make a game out of challenging our moral intuitions. Then again, that’s exactly the kind of relationship we’ve had with all sorts of disruptive technologies since the printing press.

Somehow, though, this time feels different. I think it’s because we understood the printing press, we understood computers, and we even understood the internet. In contrast, we don’t really understand artificial intelligence. By the time we do, or, I suppose, if we ever do, it’ll probably have changed our lives as we know it. Possibly even beyond recognition. Yet if we don’t embrace it, we might not survive as a species.

This is exactly why I’m so drawn to it, intellectually and ethically. As a cognitive scientist, I see the world through the lens of human psychology and our co-evolution with technology. I’ve spent the past decade studying human communication, consciousness, and most recently, artificial intelligence. Throughout my years of research, a clear theme has emerged: what defines our species is an insatiable drive to link our minds together. All animals have a drive to reproduce, but humans alone have a drive to reproduce the contents of their minds into other minds. And this drive permeates every aspect of our lives.

I grew up thinking that Vulcans, you know, like Spock from StarTrek—who my parents tell me was my first crush—were the species that did the mind melding. But now I suspect that Vulcans were just written as a caricature of humans’ so-called “communicative drive” and that Gene Roddenberry was, scientifically speaking, ahead of his time with his intuitions about human nature.

The way I see it, the story of human history is the story of innovating technologies to satiate our communicative drive. Language and art are the most ancient of these technologies. They rewired our brains and altered our consciousness. Doesn’t sound too different from modern communication technologies, right?

Back in grad school, when I was thinking a lot about what makes human cognition special, I’d jumped down a very deep rabbit hole on neural oscillations. Many of my colleagues did too. We believed this rabbit hole might lead to an entirely new way of understanding the human mind. And we were right, it did. A revolution was underway, and it’s now sweeping the neurosciences.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “We’re on the same wavelength.” Well, it turns out that’s literally true when people are exchanging ideas. When you listen to a friend’s story about something that you yourself have experienced, find yourself crying or laughing with everyone else in a movie theatre, or feel that you’re telepathically connected to the other musicians in a jam session, in a very real sense, you are telepathically connected. Your collective neural activity is in sync.

We all know how good it feels to be in sync… and how uncomfortable it can feel to be out of sync. Feeling understood is comforting, while feeling misunderstood is frustrating. But none of us, including us scientists, would have predicted that neural synchrony would be one of the keys to understanding the deepest motivations, the most sophisticated cognitive abilities, and the most impressive accomplishments of our species.

Neural synchrony is the core mechanism of cooperation. It’s how we can connect with other minds. Language and art are strategies we invented to more effectively get onto the same neural wavelength. But they evolved in different ways. Language directs our attention to the same things so that we can co-create ideas. Art, on the other hand, appears to take over our emotions to make us intuitively and immediately feel ideas. Language is cognitive; art is experiential. But both are communicative.

Consider this: A political science professor can talk behind a podium for three hours to communicate an idea that, by the end of the lecture, perhaps half of the students in a 100-person hall will understand. Bob Dylan, in the meantime, can get on stage for five minutes to communicate the same idea and, by the end of the song, thousands of people will intuitively get it, even if it's not as well fleshed out.

What’s really incredible is what happens when a lot of people are on the same wavelength. Whether it’s students in a lecture hall or audiences in a concert hall, groups of people who are neurally in sync are, in that moment, seeing the world through similar lenses. You can imagine the advantages this has for everything from understanding abstract ideas to empathizing with different perspectives.

These discoveries in the neurosciences influenced my PhD work on language, which took advantage of the fact that development provides a window into evolution. In other words, the way babies' brains develop when they’re learning language can tell us a lot about how early humans’ brains might have evolved to pave the way for language. So I brought babies into our research lab and put electrodes on their little bald heads to measure their brain waves. This is called EEG, and if you’ve ever seen the squiggly lines associated with the different stages of sleep, then you’ve seen brain waves recorded by EEG. I measured babies’ brain waves as they listened to all sorts of strange sounds, like foreign languages, backward speech, and monkey calls. The babies had a blast, and I developed a theory about language evolution.

As I’ve come to see things, though, understanding how and why language evolved isn’t entirely mysterious. Sure, it’s been called the hardest problem in all of science. But at this point, we know a lot about it. We know it was built upon more ancient primate communication systems, we know it depends upon infants’ very premature brains, we know that it has a universal structure shared across all languages, and we know that it continues to evolve today. For example, when people who speak different languages are brought together, they’ll spontaneously invent a new common language. First you’ll see a pidgin, then a creole, and then a full-fledged, structurally sound language.

But art? Why do people make art? Every group of people in every corner of the planet, from prehistoric cave people to postmodern nihilists, make art. Scientists are still scratching their heads about why, and to be honest, many of their attempts at explanations have been pretty unsatisfying. It’s obvious why language is so advantageous: it allows us to exchange information, even if most of that information is gossip. (That’s actually true: Scientists in England did a study and found that a full two-thirds of human exchanges are gossip.)

We know that art is just as universal as language, and perhaps even more potent in its ability to move people. So doesn’t it also deserve a deep scientific exploration?

I certainly thought so. If wanting to solve the hardest problem in science was why I went to grad school, then it was wanting to explore the human origins of art that led me to co-found OSCILLATIONS. It’s why I left my postdoc two years ago to come out here, to the Bay.

Ok, so that probably begs some explanation. Why would someone who decided to study the human origins of art arrive at the conclusion that she must therefore transition her career to tech? Well, just like most people don’t think there’s much of a relationship between science and art, most people also don’t think there’s much of a relationship between technology and art, let alone that art is just a technology humans invented for communication.

But as you now know, that’s exactly what I think art is: a technology humans invented for communication. And if humans co-evolve with the technologies they invent, from art to artificial intelligence, then it makes perfect sense why I am where I am.

From academia to tech

So here I am, at the epicenter of frontier technologies. And boy, are the tectonic plates shifting in strange new ways.

For example, many of you listeners may have heard of Elon Musk’s latest adventure, Neuralink. Elon not only believes that we’re living in a simulation; he also believes that the only way we’ll be able to survive in this simulation is if we get brain implants that allow us to harness the powers of artificial intelligence. Oh, Elon.

But he’s actually on to something. Elon and the team of neuroscientists he’s recruited to build his brain-computer interface all know that if people could communicate what’s in their minds with each other directly, then humanity as we know it would majorly change. That’s because the dominant technology we use right now to communicate, speech, is severely limited. First, it’s slow. Speech can only communicate 39 bits of information per second, about twice the speed of Morse code. And second, it’s imprecise. Sometimes we don’t have a word for something, and even if we do, words can often be interpreted in different ways.

For example, can you pick out the three different meanings of “like” in the following sentence?” Like, do you like him, or like like him?

Anyway, I happen to agree that brain-computer interfaces will play a central role in the future of humanity. What I, and many others, disagree with is the whole implant thing. Would you volunteer to let a doctor cut open your skull and sew a microchip into your brain? Even beyond the risk of surgery, what if the microchip were hacked? Talk about a nightmare situation. Perhaps, though, let’s not encourage the conspiracy theorists and their whole 5G Bill Gates microchip delusions.

It’s possible that one day we’ll have medical technologies that make implants completely safe and cost-effective, even for the everyday consumer. But that day won’t be here for many, many years. So in the meantime, is there anything that compares? Is there any way we can build a bridge into the future of melding our minds with computers?

Yup, there is, and it happens to be exactly the technology that I used for my PhD research: EEG. It turns out you can use EEG not only for measuring neural patterns, like neural synchrony, but also for decoding cognitive processes, like attention and focus. It’s actually relatively simple to translate EEG signals into motor commands, like controlling the cursor of a computer mouse with your mind, or to use them for biofeedback, like training mindfulness.

If you’re like me (there’s a fourth meaning of the word, did you catch it?), these things sound kinda cool, but they wouldn’t compel me to wear EEG electrodes. If, however, we were talking about other things… Like, what if we could decode our dreams and play them back? Or imagine a landscape and have it appear in a virtual environment? Or share what’s in our dreams and imaginations with other people?

Now we’re talking. But these things sound crazy, right?

Actually, we’re already able to do some of them. Of course, we’re only just starting to figure out what’s possible. But the proofs-of-concept are there, and they’re part of the foundations on which Brendan and I built OSCILLATIONS.

We’re interested in creating with a few key technologies: brain-computer interfaces, virtual and augmented reality, and image reconstruction, which is where you reconstruct images from people’s minds and project them into virtual or augmented environments. The nice thing about VR and AR headsets is that they can integrate seamlessly with EEG-based brain-computer interfaces.

Why these technologies? Because when they converge—and this is already well underway—we’ll be able to create virtual worlds, and enhance the world we’re in, using our imagination alone.

In the last episode, Brendan talked about how current communication technologies, like social media platforms, are changing the way humans interact. He described how the renaissances happening in the arts are a direct consequence of online exchanges made possible by these platforms. These creative exchanges are truly amazing, but the nature of the platforms, like all previous creative media that humans have used to make art, constrains their form. That is, photos and videos are intermediaries for what’s in our mind. We translate our imaginations into photos and videos so we can share them at the speed of information, but those who see our online posts still don’t have direct access into our imagination. Our collaborations are indirect.

The fundamental difference between current forms of media and those paired with brain-computer interfaces is that brain-computer interfaces allow us to directly share our imaginations in real-time. Imagine, for instance, what it would be like to live inside a beautiful blog, like a well-curated Tumblr account, that was decorated with the imagery in your head—the stuff you see when you close your eyes and daydream. Or imagine what it would be like to think new worlds into existence or collaboratively build them with others. It’s more exciting than moving a cursor with your mind, right?

By this point, you’re probably connecting the dots in the same way I did a few years back. You’re probably starting to see a beautiful constellation that brings together art, science, and technology. Hopefully I don’t have to work too hard to convince you that this constellation should be our new “north star” for orienting toward the future.

OSCILLATIONS believes that the promise of these new technologies is nothing short of unleashing the potential of the communicative drive—the thing that makes us human. The convergence of these technologies will take our ability to mindmeld to the next level. We’ll be able to amplify human creativity and innovation in an unprecedented way.

I’m not just talking about creating art, though. Our abilities to create, share, and iteratively build upon each others’ ideas led to culture and civilization in the first place, and updating these abilities will have major consequences for the future of humanity. Historian Yuval Noah Harari pointed out that the fabric of society is built upon shared fictions, like religion, money, and human rights.

The thing is, though, the fabric of society has unfolded on an evolutionary timescale, which is to say very slowly. It takes a long time to dream up new conceptual frameworks, let alone to get enough people on board to try them out. There’s a lot of inertia to overcome when we want to try out new ways of doing things and new ways of organizing people. Society is just one big experiment after another. Many of the experiments have failed, and nearly all of them, including even the best we’ve come up with, have major frailties. Just look at where the world is today.

What’s more, the fabric of society has only ever reflected the social consensus of a tiny fraction of the population. What if we could rapidly experiment with new possible worlds, and what if we could democratize the process, by giving everybody a voice in what the world could look like? That’s the real promise of the frontier technologies OSCILLATIONS is working with. We call it “worldmaking,” and we believe it offers a kind of “universal basic meaning.”

Future communication technologies

As Brendan argued last time, we’re in urgent need of meaning. Society seems to be going through growing pains on a global scale right now. We’re becoming paralyzed by too many social and political identities to choose from, our voices are becoming drowned out in the echo chambers of misinformation, and the cultural institutions that once provided us with collective meaning are disintegrating. However, if we could co-create highly imaginative worlds with others who share our interests and our visions—worlds weaved from the fabric of our own creative expressions—then we could regain a sense of individual and collective purpose.

The key technological ingredient in unlocking the potential of worldmaking will be artificial intelligence. In order to project our imaginations into shared virtual environments, we need two things: big brain data and sophisticated decoding algorithms. Surprisingly, the decoding algorithms will be the easy part. I say this as an insider at the company with the most advanced artificial intelligence capabilities in the world. We’re constantly innovating new machine learning methods, and the breakthroughs show no sign of slowing down. Part of the reason for the rapid pace of innovation is that there are widespread collaborations between tech and academia, and a lot of breakthroughs are freely shared so others can continually improve upon them. It’s a very exciting space to be.

So what about the big brain data? Where will that come from? As I mentioned earlier, I don’t see people rushing to get brain implants anytime soon. Brain data at scale will have to come from safe, non-invasive, consumer friendly devices, like EEG. Many consumers already own simple EEG headbands for the purpose of meditation. These consumer devices cost less than a smartphone, and their quality has recently improved to the point where scientists are using them in their labs for rigorous empirical research. The problem is that consumers are very unlikely to trust big tech companies with something as personal as their brain data. We’ve already freely given these companies so much of our personal data, and we’re only now starting to understand the complicated consequences of doing so. For many of us, those consequences don’t sit very well.

What if, however, you retained ownership of your own brain data? What if it wasn't sold to ad agencies, but instead used to empower you to contribute your imagination to worldmaking? What if everybody owned their own brain data, and everybody was empowered to participate in co-creating virtual worlds? And what if a collective of artists and scientists, rather than purely profit-driven tech companies, oversaw these virtual worlds?

Of course, you don’t have to stretch your mind too far to realize that some of these worlds wouldn’t be places we’d want to spend much time. Some of them will be downright horrifying in that spine-tingling, Black Mirror, kind of way. Some of them will be niche, highly personal, or cliquish. Some of them will mirror the social world in the way that Facebook did via the web browser and mobile device. There's plenty of investment money pouring into upstarts claiming to be the Facebook of virtual reality. Facebook itself has made a big play in this arena.

But some of these places will look like nothing that came before them. These “White Mirror” places will demonstrate new ways that the rules of reality can be reimagined. They’ll be so stunning, so gorgeous, so intricate, and so inspiring that they’ll encourage us to rethink the kind of world we want to live in. The worlds created by artists might feature the wild fashion you see on the runways but not around town, the concept cars you see at auto shows but not on the streets, and the avant garde architecture you see in miniature models but not the real world. The worlds created by philosophers and scientists might feature entirely new social and political systems that we can “try before we buy.”

The double-edged sword of being human is that we are continually shaped by our environments. When these environments reflect the darker sides of our nature, the darker sides of our nature are reinforced. We see a lot of that on social media right now. Conversely, when they reflect our creative potential, they inspire us to think in new ways. Our environments inject nonlinearity into our development and evolution as a species. If the pendulum swings even slightly in one direction or the other, we’re often disproportionately affected, spiraling downwards into zero sum power dynamics or raising the current ceilings of our collective potential. This is why progress itself is not linear, or even guaranteed.

We’re at a critical inflection point, and honestly, it could go either way. We’re experiencing tech lash unlike ever before because current technologies and media products cater to the lowest common denominator of shallow, pop-cultural memes and unfulfilling, addictive content. Social media platforms are laboriously designed to get you to stay on them for far longer than is good for your well-being. Within the echo chambers of misinformation, we’re trapped by algorithms designed to predict and take advantage of our preferences and vulnerabilities, all in the name of profits. Anxiety and depression among youth are through the roof because of it. We’ll never escape these predatory patterns if we don’t instead put on display, front-and-center, the most inspiring and innovative future-looking possibilities.

This is why we need artists and scientists to pave the path forward. In an increasingly interconnected society, it’s the artists and scientists who have the best chance at establishing a truly global common ground, at getting diverse global communities onto the same neural wavelength for a common cause. Art is the most powerful way to encourage empathy and cooperation, and science is the most powerful way to spark sustainable collective progress. Think about who you want to be and the world you want to live in. Don’t you want to be an active participant in creating more beautiful, diverse, and equitable spaces? Don’t you want to be informed, inspired, and empowered to make your vote for the future count?

If the various technologies required for this kind of worldmaking are already available, then why are the tech companies working on immersive technologies, for the most part, completely botching things? Why are they undermining the promise of these new technologies by rehashing the same old things that we see in previous forms of media like TV, movies, and games?

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that in many cases, they’re the same companies who built the social media platforms. At this point in their profit-driven life-cycle, these companies are neither terribly creative nor willing to try radical new ideas. They hire GenX game designers and Hollywood types to throw old ideas at new technologies and then scratch their heads when it doesn’t activate the market segment most likely to adopt new creative tech. When new creative technologies emerge, it’s rarely the big hits from the preceding technology that drives innovation and audiences to the new medium. Think about Disney, Pixar, or Nintendo; what made them so successful is that they took a new technology and created experiences unlike anything that came before. You can say the same for nearly all the films that came along and changed how we think of filmmaking as art, from Star Wars to the Matrix. It’s rarely old IP that builds completely new markets.

Suffice to say these markets are wide open. There’s an opportunity for artists and scientists, interested only in using these technologies for exploring how we can make the world more beautiful, diverse, and equitable, to steer the course of their development as creative and communicative mediums.

Here’s what’s at stake: When these technologies mature, they’ll either produce a future that resembles an Orwellian data privacy nightmare or one that gives our species new sustainable meaning. They’ll either be an extension of the videogame industry and a new landscape for invasive marketing or they’ll enhance beauty, knowledge, inspiration, and human potential.

Inevitably, like all technologies, these will be a reflection of human nature. They’ll reinforce the bad or the good. And if you’re listening right now, it ultimately depends on you.

In the next podcast, Brendan will lay out how this could actually work: how we could build something together that adds real value while working within the systems that currently exist. With a little bit of creative tweaking, these systems could work in favor of values and ideas and creative work that we can be proud of.