What is the wavelength project ?
Award winning multimedia artist Mark Ware’s wavelength project was launched in 2015 as an Arts Council England supported art 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. In particular, the project focused on 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. We are very pleased to announce that a paper has been published on our investigations into natural versus artificial sounds (March 2017):
IT’S TRUE – THE SOUND OF NATURE HELPS US RELAX
Cassandra D. Gould, Oliver Sparasci, Alex Mees, David Watson, Mark Ware, Sarah Garfinkel, Hugo D. Critchley. Department of Psychiatry, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Brighton, UK. Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.
The gentle burbling of a brook, or the sound of the wind in the trees can physically change our mind and bodily systems, helping us to relax. New research explains how, for the first time. 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.
As part of the wavelength project, in collaboration with multimedia 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. They found that playing ‘natural sounds’ affected the bodily systems that control the flight-or-fright and rest-digest autonomic nervous systems, with associated effects in the resting activity of the brain. While naturalistic sounds and ‘green’ environments have frequently been linked with promoting relaxation and wellbeing, until now there has been no scientific consensus as to how these effects come about. The study has been published in Scientific Reports.
The lead author, Dr Cassandra Gould van Praag said: “We are all familiar with the feeling of relaxation and ‘switching-off’ which comes from a walk in the countryside, and now we have evidence from the brain and the body which helps us understand this effect. This has been an exciting collaboration between artists and scientists, and it has produced results which may have a real-world impact, particularly for people who are experiencing high levels of stress.” Supported by Mark Ware, the team at BSMS conducted an experiment where participants listened to sounds recorded from natural and artificial environments, while their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner, and their autonomic nervous system activity was monitored via minute changes in heart rate. The team found that activity in the default mode network of the brain (a collection of areas which are active when we are resting) was different depending on the sounds playing in the background:
When listening to natural sounds, the brain connectivity reflected an outward-directed focus of attention; when listening to artificial sounds, the brain connectivity reflected an inward-directed focus of attention, similar to states observed in anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. There was also an increase in rest-digest nervous system activity (associated with relaxation of the body) when listening to natural compared with artificial sounds, and better performance in an external attentional monitoring task. Interestingly, the amount of change in nervous system activity was dependent on the participants’ baseline state: Individuals who showed evidence of the greatest stress before starting the experiment showed the greatest bodily relaxation when listening to natural sounds, while those who were already relaxed in the brain scanner environment showed a slight increase in stress when listening to natural compared with artificial sounds.
The study of environmental exposure effects is of growing interest in physical and mental health settings, and greatly influences issues of public health and town planning. This research is first to present an integrated behavioural, physiological and brain exploration of this topic.
Artist Mark Ware commented: “Art-science collaborations can be problematic, often due to a lack of shared knowledge and language (scientific and artistic), but the team at BSMS has generously sought common ground, which has resulted in this exciting and successful outcome. We have plans to continue collaborating and I am keen to explore how the results of this work might be applied to the creation and understanding of time-based art (installations, multimedia performance, and film) for the benefit of people in terms of wellbeing and health.”
You can read the full article here >
Throughout 2015, the wavelength project expanded to include a collaboration with psychologist Dr Nichola Street, lecturer and researcher at Staffordshire University’s Department of Psychology, with the support of her colleagues. This collaboration, entitled Reflecting Nature, was set up to explore audience responses to Mark’s art featuring imagery of the natural environment and symmetrical patterns, and will continue throughout 2017.
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 collaboration with Mark Ware, we are conducting scientific engagement activities with the public on a topic that influences our everyday life – understanding beauty and 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). It is hoped that this collaboration will have a positive impact on the design of a number of environments in which immobility is high (e.g. hospitals, prisons, schools and even space travel). For me, this collaboration is proving to be a unique and fantastic opportunity to make a difference to the lives of many.’
For the collaboration, Mark Ware created a series of sixteen new digital artworks in consultation with Dr Street that are currently touring the country and are 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 Reflecting Nature touring exhibition brings together art and science to explore how we respond to natural and artificial stimuli. The sixteen digital prints can be seen on the the Art For Sale page on this website).
As well as being able to enjoy the artworks, those attending the Reflecting Nature exhibition have also had the opportunity 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 conducted at Staffordshire University.
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.’
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 more about Mark Ware’s art science collaborations in New Scientist: http://ow.ly/HiIg3023S69
A new charity:
Due to the successful outcomes of Mark Ware’s recent Arts Council England supported art science collaborations, he has set up a new charity to support this type of work entitled, Reflecting Nature in art & science (Registered Charity Number 1173281). The objects of the charity are ‘The advancement of the arts and science focusing on the health benefits of the natural environment to the public by funding and promoting research / activities that investigate and support said subject’.
‘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, Team Leader Exploration at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Cologne