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(left) Dr Nichola Street and Dr Gemma Hurst, Staffordshire University, (centre) Reflecting Nature art exhibition logo, (right) eye tracking at Staffordshire University

‘Ware and his collaborators aren’t fusing science and art so much as evolving an entirely new way of working.’ – New Scientist, July 2016

What is the wavelength project ?

Award winning multimedia artist Mark Ware’s wavelength project began in 2015 as an Arts Council England supported artistic and neuroscience collaboration between Mark and Prof Hugo Critchley and his colleagues at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, University of Sussex.  The project began by investigating how natural versus artificial sounds and light affect the brain (for more information about Prof Critchley and his team, please visit the neuroscience page on this website). In particular, the project was interested in inherent qualities in natural sounds and light that may benefit us in terms of wellbeing and health and that may also contribute to the understanding and creation of art.  Here is a summary statement about the investigations in natural and artificial sounds provided by the Sackler Centre:

The sounds of nature may help you think clearly

Cassandra D. Gould1,2, Oliver Sparasci1, Alex Mees1, David Watson1,2, Mark Ware, Sarah Garfinkel1,2, Hugo D. Critchley1,21Department of Psychiatry, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Brighton, UK. 2Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. 3School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.

PUBLIC STATEMENT

It is a commonly held belief that sounds from nature may be soothing and restorative, while the hustle and bustle of artificial, urban living may have less positive effects on mental health. As yet, however, there has been little scientific research into the effects of auditory environment on performance and brain activity.

In collaboration with auditory and visual artist Mark Ware, researchers from Brighton and Sussex Medical School and the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science have undertaken a brain imaging experiment to investigate how auditory environments affect our brain. In the experiment, 16 volunteers listened to carefully composed ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ soundscapes while their ‘resting state’ brain activity was recorded. When the volunteers were listening to natural sounds, the brain activation pattern reflected broad monitoring of the external environment (increased cuneus connectivity) and there was an improvement in their task performance. When listening to artificial sounds, however, there was an increased connectivity with a part of the brain involved in self-referential and evaluative thought processing (the medial prefrontal cortex), and task performance was impaired.

An increase in self-referential thought processing may be detrimental to attention and focus, as the self-referential thoughts compete for resources and distract from the task in hand. High levels of self-referential thoughts are also associated with anxiety and other mood disorders. This investigation suggests that exposure to natural sounds may be beneficial to mental health, by reducing the likelihood of self-referential and evaluative thoughts, while improving broad attentional focus. The researchers emphasise that the work is exploratory, and further experiments will be required to strengthen the claims. This initial finding may, however, be relevant to clinical practice and attempts to reduce the impact of self-referential thoughts in anxiety and mood disorders. Importantly, the research helps to explain why time spent outside can be beneficial to our mental health, and provides a creative solution to combatting the stress of our increasingly urbanised lifestyles.

 A detailed announcement concerning the outcomes of these investigations will be announced later this year.

‘Progress is made when crossing frontiers. Mark Ware’s vision of linking up-to-date research in neuroscience and circadian rhythms to artistic experiences with light and sound has vast potential in that respect. I am excited to see where this project leads us.’ – Dr Oliver Angerer, Human Exploration Science Coordinator, European Space Agency (until August 1st 2014) Currently Team Leader Exploration at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Cologne

(left) Palace Pier, Brighton , (centre) Professor Hugo Critchley, (right) Mark Ware Photos: Mark and Sara Ware
(left) Palace Pier, Brighton , (centre) Professor Hugo Critchley, (right) Mark Ware Photos: Mark and Sara Ware

Over recent months, the wavelength project has expanded to also include a collaboration with psychologist Dr Nichola Street, a lecturer and researcher at Staffordshire University’s School of Psychology, Sport and Exercise and her colleagues.  Dr Street says: ‘Most of my research to date has involved trying to unpick the things that contribute to aesthetic appreciation with a particular focus on complexity in visual scenes and fractal patterns (self-similar patterns commonly found in the natural environment). Trying to understand preference and experiences of beauty has long been the domain of artists and philosophers but the field of empirical aesthetics takes a scientific stance from which to explore experimentally, responses to beauty.

The creation and importance that art and beauty play in our daily lives has always interested me. Through the Reflecting Nature touring exhibition collaboration with Mark Ware, we are trying to achieve scientific engagement from the public on a topic that influences our everyday life – understanding beauty/visual preference.

Psychologists have long known that the environment in which we spend time in is important, and that nature has particularly beneficial properties. The Reflecting Nature project aims to provide insights in to the role individual differences play in aesthetic responses to natural and built environments.  We are exploring how these responses can be enhanced and magnified using artistic outputs to provoke particular psychological states. The potential impact of the findings include dissemination of the ideas into immersive environments and design interventions that can be used to increase psychological states and stress recovery responses (making people feel better). These can be used in a number of environments in which immobility is high (hospitals, prisons, schools and even space travel). The project and collaboration are providing a unique and fantastic opportunity to make a difference to the lives of many.’

Nikki map and eye tracking 2
(left) Dr Nichola Street, (centre) Reflecting Nature touring venues and (right) Reflecting Nature digital art print. Photos and art: Mark Ware

Mark Ware has created a series of new digital artworks in consultation with Dr Street that is currently touring the country and is being exhibited at a variety of venues, ranging from Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre as part of the city’s European City of Science 2016 events,  to cathedrals.   The touring exhibition entitled, Reflecting Nature, brings together art and science to explore how we respond to natural and artificial stimuli. It consists of sixteen digital prints which use imagery of the natural environment and symmetrical patterns (to see the prints, please visit the Art For Sale page on this website).

As well as being able to enjoy the artworks, those attending the Reflecting Nature exhibition will also be able to contribute data to a scientific project being led by the University of Staffordshire psychologists that is designed to look at how we respond to artwork, and different environments. Members of the public are taking part during workshops using eye tracking equipment and by performing specially designed response tasks.

Mark says, Most of my art since having a severe stroke in 1996 has been touched by my disability and as a result I have become increasingly interested in how my subjective experiences have been altered by my brain injury. The Reflecting Nature collaboration and the wavelength project’s other activities are allowing me to explore subjects that are of profound interest to all artists: why we create art, how we respond to art and how art is intrinsically linked to our interactions with the natural environment.’

Photos: Mark Ware
Photos: Mark Ware

Most people believe that the natural environment is good for us in terms of wellbeing and health. The wavelength project is seeking to provide scientific evidence to assess this belief, with artistic outcomes influenced by the results.  In the long term, we aim to deliver results that may be of benefit to many people, including those who have experienced brain injury or suffer from disorders of consciousness. If, as Mark and others believe, exposure to the natural environment is found to be beneficial to our conscious experience, this will support initiatives to protect, enhance and restore wildlife and our natural resources, on land and at sea.  A vitally important outcome of the wavelength project will be to raise awareness of this need.  In recognition of this important direction, Kent Wildlife Trust has also partnered with the project.  The Trust is advising the wavelength project team on all issues concerning the natural environment and are collaborating on a variety of creative activities.

The wavelength project collaborations will inform the development and creation of a series of new future artistic outcomes, including original music compositions, multimedia performances, sound and light installations and creative workshops.  Read about Mark Ware’s art science collaborations in New Scientist: http://ow.ly/HiIg3023S69

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Please help support the wavelength project and good causes by purchasing limited edition art prints: http://thewavelengthproject.com/shop/

 

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