Scientists are using fMRI machines to study what happens in our brains when we watch movies, hear music — or freestyle rap. I wondered if all this research on creativity and the brain could help me figure out why I feel compelled to create art in a strange location.
Breaking a cardinal rule in New York City
When I lived in Los Angeles, I went to art school and then worked as an animation storyboard artist. Getting to work, I had so much road rage stuck on the freeway and trying to avoid gridlock on surface streets.
Eventually, I moved to New York to get into public radio. I felt more fulfilled in my career, but I had the opposite problem on the way to work. The subway rides were boring and tedious.
Then I discovered an app called SketchBook. You draw directly on your phone with your fingers. So I started sketching people on the train.
Now I’m breaking a cardinal rule — looking at my fellow New Yorkers. I try to be sneaky, but I’ve been yelled at. People have moved to other seats. One guy drew a cartoon of me on his hand and wrote “Death” with an arrow pointing to my caricature (which was actually pretty good).
I started to wonder, what is going on in my brain that compels me to do this? When I worked in animation I got paid to draw. I don’t even sell these subway drawings. I could stop anytime. Actually I did stop after that guy threatened me — but only for a week. So why do I keep at it?
There isn’t a lot of research on how our brains function when we draw. But there is a lot of information on how the brain takes in visual information.
Drawing and the brain
First, I visited David Sulzer, who runs an fMRI lab at Columbia University. He says your brain is breaking down all that visual information separately — it recognizes the shape, then the color, then distance. Those different synapses talk to each other to create this image in your mind’s eye. So how does your brain know it’s looking at a work of art?
“These things in my book are learned. They are cultural,” he says. “If what’s rewarding is intrinsic then we should all like the same things. And to some extent we do, but to a very large extent and probably what we define as art — we don’t.”
Then he picks Goya as an example. “You could say, well look, Goya could draw better than anybody and we call him a genius. You know what’s different between a Goya drawing and, uh, who can I pick on?” I volunteer myself. I ain’t no Goya.
“You’re not Goya, so an Eric drawing and a Goya drawing — are we going to see that at the level of fMRI?” he asks, and then responds, “Absolutely not.”
Switching an inner monologue on and off
Ed Vessel runs the Center for Neural Science at NYU, and he says different things are going on in your brain when you look at artwork — and his research can explain why I feel so compelled to draw on the subway.
He recently did a study where he puts his subjects into an fMRI machine. Then he flashed images of paintings. The subjects were asked to click a button when they had a reaction to a painting — any reaction.
“There can be a painting that is not necessarily beautiful in the conventional sense — and may even be deeply disturbing — but that we really emotionally resonate with,” he explains.
Normally when he puts subjects into an fMRI machine, the motor functions of their brains take over because he’s asking them to do boring stuff like pressing keys on a keyboard. That brain region, which gets suppressed, is called the default mode network. It’s an automatic internal monologue that Vessel images as, “Hmm, I wonder what I should do tomorrow, or maybe I should do this, or I forgot to do that, or what was that person I saw this morning, and what did they say to me?”
Vessel explains, “Normally these two are very separate. Normally I can drive down the road and I can respond to cars coming at me and I can put on my turn signal and I can have my internal monologue going on separately.”
But when his subjects felt moved by a work of art, the internal monologue was activated. Even more interesting, it got switched on after the image had gone away, in a moment of reflection. The artwork was almost literally speaking to them.
The happiness in creative flow
That’s when I realized why I feel compelled to draw on the subway. I don’t like my default mode network. It’s full of neurotic chatter. When I draw, I’m merging that inner monologue with my motor functions into one creative stream.
It’s that flow that keeps me at it. Researchers have looked at the state of flow as it relates to happiness. It’s not something you can detect on an fMRI, but it is real. And you don’t have to draw to tap that experience. It could be knitting, or yoga. It's whatever you feel good doing, even if it puts you in a precarious situation — like drawing testy New Yorkers riding the subway to work.
Eric Molinsky is the host/producer of the bi-weekly podcast "Imaginary Worlds," about sci-fi and other fantasy genres — how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief.