The wavelength project: Some exciting early neuroscience outcomes

001(Author: Mark Ware MFA) The wavelength project began during February 2015. Since then it has been somewhat like an iceberg with only a small percentage of the project being visible to the general public due to the fact that most of the activities have been taking place away from the public gaze. This is largely because of the scientific method applied by the neuroscientists at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at Brighton and Sussex Medical School where many hours have been invested since earlier this year in a pilot study investigating the effects of natural versus artificial sound on the brain.

One of my original hopes and dreams for the wavelength project was that I might eventually be able to create sound and light installations that have been proven to have a beneficial effect on people with conditions such as autism, stroke and cerebral palsy as well as people with anxiety disorders. These are conditions that my wife and I are familiar with, either personally or via people very close to us. The work so generously carried out by the Sackler Centre suggests that we are on the right track to succeed.

Oaklands Park School creative workshops at Exeter Cathedral (2013) for Cathedra 900 led by Emily Kreider Photos: Mark Ware
Oaklands Park School creative workshops at Exeter Cathedral (2013) for Cathedra 900 led by Emily Kreider Photos: Mark Ware

This is particularly exciting because we will be able to develop further the creative activities we staged during our Arts Council England supported Sound Posts and Cathedra 900 projects that were designed for blind children, autistic children and children with cerebral palsy, including the multi-channel soundscape that was presented in Exeter Cathedral’s Chapter House during 2013.

The wavelength project is an investigation into the effects of natural versus artificial sound and light on the brain. As you will see below, we began with investigating sound only. Over coming months the project will expand to include light as well. From next year, there will be a number of artistic outcomes including sound and light installations, multimedia performances and a touring exhibition of digital prints, all of which will be strongly influenced by the neuroscience activities. I am already developing soundscapes that are taking into account what has been discovered so far, that involve artificial subtle adjustments to natural sound recordings. Below is a summary of neuroscience progress to date. This includes a description of what the early data analyses suggests (text approved by the Sackler Centre). The tone of this summary is ‘cautious’ because analysis of data is not yet complete.

Information about the wavelength project neuroscience pilot study:
The study tested the notion that certain environmental sounds (natural/unnatural and familiar/unfamiliar) reliably evoke distinct patterns of bodily response and feeling states that engender positive or negative feelings and accompanying characteristic thoughts. This study stemmed from a sound workshop I conducted for young children with severe cerebral palsy and autistic children a few years ago at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama where I discovered that the children appeared to respond more positively to natural sounds than ‘artificial’ sounds. This lead me to ask whether or not there are intrinsic qualities in natural sounds that we all respond to in positive ways.

As mentioned above, we will eventually include the study of environmental light (natural and artificial) as well as sound. I’m keen for studies to explore if and how the slow changes in colour temperature of light throughout the day affect circadian rhythms, mood, memory and work task abilities. These studies will include studies/measurements of changes in natural light composition and time patterns throughout the year. As with the investigations into sound, the study of light will inform the creation of a series of immersive installations and performances.

The Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, Brighton (University of Sussex)
The Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, Brighton (University of Sussex)

A summary of neuroscience results so far:
Preliminary results suggest that sounds can have a significant effect on attentional processes and mind-wandering. In particular, artificial familiar sounds appear to be most distracting, while natural familiar sounds were shown to be protective and promote absorption in external tasks.   Artificial familiar sounds impaired performance on a tracking task, but were also able to distract from rumination and internal thoughts. By helping people with ADHD symptoms maintain task performance, sounds were also shown to have a beneficial effect, this effect was most apparent for natural unfamiliar sounds.
Neuroimaging brain analyses revealed a comprehensive set of networks engaged in mind-wandering, and these were shown to be altered with different sound contexts which in turn affected task performance.


1. I supplied 100 sound recording for the pilot investigation comprising of 50 natural sounds and 50 artificial sounds.

2. Participants were exposed to the different sounds which they rated according to familiarity and intensity on a visual analogue scale (VAS). This was performed as a pilot study in order to identify which sounds would form the soundscapes to be played in the MRI scanner (familiar natural, unfamiliar natural, familiar artificial and unfamiliar artificial).

3. I created soundscapes that took into account the first stage of results and participants were then exposed to the soundscapes whilst conducting the mind-wandering task (the sounds being ‘natural familiar’, ‘natural unfamiliar’, ‘artificial familiar’, ‘artificial unfamiliar’ and no sound at all). This occurred in the MRI scanner in order to monitor neural activity. The natural sounds used to create the soundscapes were all recorded at Kent Wildlife Trust nature reserves. Stevie Rice, Head of People Engagement at the Trust is leading its partnership with the wavelength project and we are currently developing wavelength project related artistic activities to be staged in Kent next year.

005The mind-wandering task involved participants looking at a screen that displayed a white circle moving slowly back and forth across a black background. The screen flashed periodically at which time participants responded by pressing a button. The intention of the mind-wandering investigation was to measure response times when exposed to a monotonous task. The introduction of sound into the task was done as part of the wavelength project .

The team managing this activity is lead by Professor Hugo Critchley. The scientific team of the wavelength project include medical students Oliver Sparasci and Alex Mees. Dr Sarah Garfinkel is directly supervising these students and designed and oversees the laboratory and neuroimaging experiments and their analyses. Other members of Hugo’s team have important contributions, notably Drs Cassandra Gould and David Watson. Dr Andy Philippides (reader in Informatics) provides invaluable collaborative help and advice. Dr Cristina Ottaviani remains a strong collaborator with the team.

Some information on Professor Hugo Critchey and the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science:
‘Prof Hugo Critchley, at Brighton and Sussex Medical School and the Sackler Centre of Consciousness Science, leads the scientific component of the wavelength project with his team and key collaborators. The Sackler Centre is a unique multidisciplinary group focused on understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of consciousness and its disorders, with particular focus on psychiatric illness. Here, the approach of Hugo’s lab is to apply expertise in emotional neuroscience, specifically in brain-body interaction, to understand how consciousness and selfhood are embodied and how a breakdown in the integrity of consciousness and self-representation may give rise to psychiatric symptoms through a failure in the integration of mental and internal bodily processes (interoception). Prof Anil Seth, co-director of the Sackler Centre with Hugo, argues that interoceptive predictive coding is a key mechanism maintaining self-integrity and the continuity of conscious experience.

Within this broad context, Hugo’s team is exploring the relationship between autonomic bodily (arousal) responses, ‘interoceptive’ sensations, thoughts and emotional feelings. Recent work in collaboration with Dr Cristina Ottaviani (Rome) and Jonny Smallwood, University of York, examines the brain and bodily correlates of normal and abnormal self-generated ‘spontaneous’ thoughts and feelings: In people with mood and anxiety disorders, healthy self-generated thoughts may change into maladaptive perseverative cognitions, i.e. rumination and worry. These are associated with an unhealthy stress response within the body. Using a combination of brain imaging and physiological measurement in healthy participants and anxious patients, the team are characterizing the brain networks and bodily expression of mind-wandering (mentioned above), rumination and worry.

Aside from the direct scientific interest, the wavelength project is enriched by the free communication across art and science: for example, laboratory-based characterisation of the distinct psychophysiological impact of different sounds can be fed meaningfully into immersive art installations that engage a broader audience to illustrate and in some ways validate the experimental research conducted in the rarified atmosphere of a finely-controlled laboratory’. – The Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science

I would like to thank Professor Hugo Critchley and his colleagues at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science for their help with writing this blog.  – Mark Ware