The Frontal Cortex

Artists, Scientists and the NYAS

This sounds like a fantastic event, a genuine dialogue between artists and scientists:

The taste of a ripe tomato, the hook of a catchy song, the scent of a lover’s hair. What is it, exactly, that drives us to seek these things again and again?

Neuroscientists who study perception are starting to discover the inner workings of the sensory mind. Starting on Monday at the New York Academy of Sciences, researchers and artists will team up to explore this new research in a series of talks called Science of the Five Senses. Their conversations will raise a question for the amateur hedonist: If we had a better understanding of the signals our bodies send to our brains, might we take more pleasure from them?

The academy, which was founded in 1817 and now has a membership of more than 25,000 scientists, has recently reached out to the general public with its Science and the City lectures.

“I wanted our live events to be at the intersection of science and culture,” said Adrienne Burke, an editor at the academy who conceived the new series. “That’s how we ended up with a singer and a food writer and an ex-magician. There is a deeper and more common connection between science and art than people tend to recognize.”

For “Science of the Five Senses” Ms. Burke asked the scientists to invite artists to explain their work. “I’m used to booking scientists,” she said. “But I was amazed that all the artists said yes right away, even Rosanne Cash.”

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it to the first event on Monday, which features Ranulfo Romo and the filmmaker Kun Chang. But if anyone makes it to the discussion, please put your take in the comments below.


  1. #1 jb
    November 4, 2008

    I made it to this evening so here’s a report from a science educator, artist and meditator.

    First I applaud the combined efforts of artists, neuroscientists and meditators (when they are included) to make sense of how the mind/brain works and share it with the public. We all have mind/brains which are in many ways untrained and whose functioning is poorly understood. We are headed for the kind of human society depicted in the movie Wall-E without this kind of effort.

    Last night was a wonderful evening at the New York Academy of Science. A near-capacity crowd heard world class neuroscientist Ranulfo Romo speak about the sense of touch interspersed with clips by award-winning documentary maker Kun Chang from his film “Touch, the Forgotten Sense”. These two are to be commended for taking the time to choreograph an informative and moving presentation and kudos to the Academy for bringing them from Mexico and Montreal.

    The film clips showed a master safe cracker, and people with various disabilities: a woman who has been without her sense of touch for 21 years, and blind and deaf people who compensate for the loss of those senses through touch. Dr. Romo discussed his research with monkeys that investigates how the brain processes sensory information. Once the information leaves a sense receptor it travels to the brain in the form of electrical impulses which are stored temporarily in the working or short term memory before sometimes making it into the long term. In particular Dr. Romo looks at how monkeys feel a vibration of a certain frequency with their finger tips and then signal whether a second vibration of a different frquency arriving a few seconds later, is of higher or lower frequency. We perform a related task when we read a phone number and then ‘keep it in mind’ until we can dial a phone. The monkey has to keep the first vibration in mind and compare it to the second. Dr. Romo has tested himself and declared that he could do as well as the monkeys with a little practice. A 72 yr.old colleague did worse; touch like everything else declines with age.

    With the monkeys Dr. Romo monitors the response of individual neurons as the touch data gets to the brain and the neurons fire, looking at where and when this information arrives and how and where it is stored. This is done by small electrodes placed in the brain, a painless procedure he said. The results were very interesting and showed how physically widespread is this simple event in the brain, thus ensuring the ability to feel even with a lesioned or damaged brain.

    There was a good recorded question and answer session which spilled over into a tasty wine and cheese reception though I’m not sure the presenters ever had a chance to grab something. Thank you Dr. Romo and Mr. Chung!

    The evening was not without it’s problems, however. The first is one that plagues all neuroscience talks to the public; people don’t understand electricity…people can’t see it and there’s no common similar experince. Water in pipes works the same way but who understands their plumbing? Dr. Romo’s explanations were better than most but even I(with some physics background) had trouble following
    his explanations and a photographer I talked to at the reception admitted being lost during that part of the evening.

    The other problem has to do with using animals for research; the research must be justifiable and humanely conducted. What Dr. Romo is investigating is useful for treating people with sensory disabilities, people with diabetes and Alzheimer’s, plus the aging population. However I’m not sure that training your monkeys to give the right answer with three drops of tequila is necessary. There are elegant, more humane ways of using operant conditioning to get our monkey to work for you.

    PS This evening was a big improvement over an equally interesting presentation given at the Graduate Center at CUNY, entitled “Quartet for Percussion and Brain Waves”. What I suspect was demonstrated was that a world class percussionist could just think about playing a piece and have an EEG driven “instrument” make sounds along with some other percussionists on drums, thus playing a quartet. This was completely missed by the audience or so a too brief Q+A revealed.

    A practical application: my 87 year old aunt is losing her sight and has trouble identifying coins, fastening her jacket, and applying tooth paste to a brush. She’d prefer to wait til medical science fixes this and is not much interested in feeling instead of seeing. Part of the problem is her deminished sense of touch but Dr. Romo said she could do it with practice.

    There will be a podcast available on the 14th and Chang’s film is for sale.

  2. #2 md
    November 6, 2008


    Two great tastes that taste great together, Science and Art. Having attended the first program of the Science of the Senses series on the topic of touch, I would say that the New York Academy of Science is off to a great start in their effort to provide public programming.

    It is said that of all the five senses the sense of touch is often overlooked and is the least studied. How does the somatosensory system work in humans? To what local in the brain are senses transmitted from the limbs and how are they processed? What happens if we lose sensation in the body? How might other parts of the brain, or the other four senses, compensate for such loss?

    The affable neuroscientist Dr. Ranulfo Romo, donning a rich mane of white hair, and the ever-smiling documentary filmmaker, Kun Chang, who exuded a quiet sophistication, clearly were enjoying themselves as co-presenters of the talk Hooked on a Feeling: the Science of Touch. Both expressed a clear appreciation for each other’s expertise. Even though the film (which reminded me of the wonderful movies I watched in high school that were free of heavy digital editing and special effects), was not specifically about Dr. Romo’s research, the pairing made sense and the men used a tag-team approach to presenting their work. Chang’s film clips were interspersed between Romo’s research findings (illustrated in traditional static charts and graphs including monkey stock art). I believe that Dr. Romo’s research focused solely on discriminative touch (there are three separate pathways in the brain that make up the somatosensory system: pain and temperature, proprioception, and discriminative) from painstaking work involving inserting electrodes into the brains of monkeys. Not surprisingly, primate somatosensory systems are comparable to humans and thus, for better or worse, make good research subjects. (The fact that the brain does not feel pain doesn’t make it any easier for humans to accept animal testing.) Chang’s film included the story of numerous people with some level of sensory impairment, with a focus on touch. A woman wakes up to find that she has lost all sensation from her body except for a small patch of skin on her forehead, one of only two cases in the world. A blind woman participates in an experimental technology that involves placing a flap of electrodes upon the tongue and through this contact a crude type of “sight” is experienced. A deafblind boy articulates clearly through speech the importance of touch, showing us how he reads lips as well as sign languages with his hands via a process known as the Tadomo method.

    Of course, what was sacrificed by this coupling of two specialties was the complete telling of either story. Time did not allow for the entire film to be shown; nor was there enough space to digest the scientific data that was plotted out and projected, at least in my opinion. In exchange, to see side-by-side the end product of two very different disciplines – one a fine-grained effort that painstakingly teases out meaning from within a working hypothesis on something as small as a single neuronal cell; the other a visually stimulating series of emotionally stirring stories that remind us that precious human life is often the drive behind scientific research and, lets hope, we are also its beneficiaries.

    Next up in the series is the sense of smell, December 02.

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