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The NeuroArts Lab


McMaster University


1. Human vocalization: Its neural, genetic, and evolutionary bases

We are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to analyze the brain areas and neural pathways that control vocalization. We have characterized a part of the human motor cortex that controls laryngeal function, and have shown this to be the major vocal centre of the human brain, for both speaking and singing.

We are especially interested in the role of this part of the brain in the human capacity for vocal imitation, both developmentally and evolutionarily, and this is leading us to study the neural projections to and from the larynx motor area. In addition, we are interested in genetic aspects of speech production, including syndromes like developmental stuttering that have strong familial inheritance as well as high concordance rates in twins studies. Our collaborators include Peter Pfordresher (University at Buffalo) and Shelly Jo Kraft (Wayne State University).

2. Comparative musicology: Classification, universals, and cultural evolution of music

A principal objective of the lab is the revival of comparative musicology studies, in the spirit of both the Berlin School of the early 20th century and the Cantometrics project of the 1960´s. We have developed new methods for musical classification, so as to establish a taxonomy of musical styles across human populations throughout the world. We have applied this information to an investigation of the relationship between regional musical styles and certain genetic markers (mitochondrial DNA haplogroups) that are used by molecular anthropologists to study the migration patterns of human populations over the last 50,000 years.

We are currently attempting to develop a vocal-melodic theory of the origins of musical scales by analyzing a global sample of vocal songs and characterizing the intevallic properties of the scales.

3. Neuro-narrative: Narrative communication across modalities of expression

People can use multiple expressive modalities for communicating narrative ideas about what happened in the past. The three major modalities are speech, pantomime, and drawing. We have used functional MRI to look for common brain areas that mediate the narrative component of these three functions when communicating narrative ideas. We have also done studies of storytelling in order to look at the gestural components of the storytelling process in the voice, face, and body.

4. Conversation as joint action: Behavioural and neural analyses

Conversation - whether in everyday life or in the theatrical arts - is the major medium of human communication and interaction. We are exploring both the behavioural and neural mechanisms of conversation. The behavioural studies are attempting to establish the basic building blocks of conversational co-construction. In addition, we are conducting a novel two-person fMRI study of conversation in which a scanned person is conversing through texting with a conversational partner outside of the scanner so as to look at the neural correlates of co-construction during partnered interaction.

5. The neural basis of creativity

Perhaps the most integrative topic of research in the lab is the search for the behavioural mechanisms and neural correlates of creativity. Given the broad interdisciplinary nature of the lab's research, we are approaching creativity in a multi-arts fashion, with the aim of looking for both domain-specific and domain-general aspects of creativity. Current projects are examining the trajectory of the creative process in graphic design, visual art, story writing, and musical composition. We are attempting to build models that relate the creative process to the mechanisms of style change and cultural evolution.

6. Biological foundations of human dance

A major interest of the lab is the neural basis of dance movement, including a focus on the human capacity to entrain movements to external timekeepers. Current fMRI work is examining the neural correlates of leading vs. following in contact-based couple dancing, and comparable kinematic work is examining the physical interaction between dancers using motion capture. In addition, we are attempting to generate a classification of world dance styles, following in the footsteps of seminal work on “choreometrics” by Lomax and his colleagues.

7. Role playing in actors

In the dramatic arts, actors take on the role of the characters they play. A large literature on "perspective taking" and "theory-of-mind" in psychology has failed to examine this process. We are studying role playing in actors using functional MRI with the intent of shedding light on brain areas whose activity changes when people assume the role of another person. We are also studying the gestural correlates of character portrayal in actors using 3D motion capture in the LIVELab. Our collaborotors on this project are Peter Cockett and Catherine Graham (McMaster University).

8. Neural control of drawing and writing

The capacity to create representational images on flat surfaces is the most species-specific aspect of the visual arts. We are examining the neural basis of this capacity using an MRI-compatible drawing tablet that allows us to track drawing behaviour while a person´s brain is being scanned. We are taking our lead from ancient rock art by looking at the generation of not only figurative images but geometric patterns as well. Our collaborotor on this project is Judy Major-Girardin (McMaster University).

9. Speech prosody: Melody, rhythm and emotion in speech

We are engaged in cross-linguistic studies of speech melody and rhythm, using a music-inspired model of these processes. Our work currently covers English and Cantonese. In addition to this work on basic phonological processes, we are examining the expression of emotion in speech using both acoustic measurements (register, pitch contour, loudness, duration) and functional MRI. This study is based on contemporary cognitive-appraisal theories of emotion.

10. The neuroscience of religion

The lab is studying the neurocognitive and evolutionary foundations of religion and ritual, with a focus on the expressive aspects of religion, most notably prayer and chanting. Prayer touches on several key aspects of the lab's work, including speech, song, emotional expression, and perspective taking.

11. Cinema and the brain

"Neurocinematics" is a new area of research in cognitive neuroscience. We are examining neural aspects of film-viewing in our studies, with a focus on the sense of empathy that viewers feel for characters in dramatic narratives and the influence that music has on this.

12. Other areas of interest

Other areas of interest include musical archaeology, historical theories of music origin, the artistic history of Mesoamerica, singing-based music therapy methods, and the avant-garde arts movements of the first half of the 20th century.