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My Journey to Neuroaesthetics – One Branch Doesn’t Make Up the Whole Tree

Neuroaesthetics is a novel field of research combining fields such as biological theories, aesthetic science, psychology, neuroscience, and the arts to investigate the interaction between humans and art. As the field is incredibly vast there are multiple paths to the field. Here is my journey to Neuroaesthetics and hopefully by gaining insight on the steppingstones I took to get here you may find some top tips that will help you establish yourself in this field of research.

When telling my story about how I got into Neuroaesthetics I always start from when I was in primary school as my love for the arts, specifically acting and creative writing grew there. I was always the child playing the main character in school plays or writing lengthy pieces of creative writing for English lessons. Therefore, I entered secondary school knowing that I wanted to do one of my GCSEs in Drama to develop my acting skills. However, I was also quite good at the core subjects (English, Maths and Science) and due to the academic pressure that is placed upon schools to gain outstanding results in core subjects, these subjects gained priority over creative subjects. It was at that moment I realised that the narrative presented to me that the arts and sciences were mutually exclusive did not sit well with me as I knew that I didn’t want to sacrifice one subject of interest for the other. Therefore, when I started sixth form, I approached my subjects with the idea that I would create a wide base for myself and study multiple of my interests simultaneously. The A levels I chose were Psychology, Sociology, English Language & Literature, and I also completed a BTEC Certificate in Acting. Although I wasn’t taught how they fed into each other I could personally join the dots and see how they did.

However, as you can see from my subjects I still wasn't at the point where everything was merged as my subjects were all separate and this became more pronounced when I went to university. Initially, I wanted to do a joint psychology and drama degree but according to the British Psychological Society, joint degrees were not accredited due to the second year of study not covering all the core modules required for an accredited Psychology degree. Therefore, I chose to do a standard BSc Psychology degree as I decided at that point, I wanted to be a drama therapist, hence I needed to understand human behaviour as best as I could. This was the best decision for me as I found the module content very useful and informative, and I was able to pursue my artistic interests outside of my university (you can be a part of societies in university, but I preferred activities outside of my institution).

Image 1: My logo - which is a visual representation of my research interests

My career path changed when I met my final year project supervisor Dr Beatriz Calvo-Merino as this was the first time I was introduced to Neuroaesthetics through her research on the sensorimotor system in dancers. Before meeting Dr Calvo-Merino the only way I knew to combine the arts and sciences was through therapeutic practice, now I knew that I could conduct scientific exploratory research.

Therefore, inspired by Dr Calvo-Merino’s work my first study was an investigation into classical ballerina’s emotional perceptions of classical ballet dance clips whilst administering a mood induction stimulation. I was amazed that I could do a project like this and was propelled into the world of Neuroaesthetics.

Following this, Dr Calvo-Merino encouraged me to do my masters at Goldsmiths University of London on the then-new MSc Psychology of the Arts, Neuroaesthetics and Creativity programme made and led by Dr Guido Orgs and Dr Rebecca Chamberlain. This was where I learnt the foundations of aesthetics and creativity research enabling me to gain an understanding of how to research within Neuroaesthetics. Under the supervision of Dr Guido Orgs, I then completed my masters' project on whether audience members who participate in a theatrical performance on stage have higher levels of engagement compared to audience members who remain in their seats. This project was a collaboration with the theatre company ‘Flute Theatre’, and researchers Dr Jamie Ward, Professor Daniel Richardson, and Professor Antonia Hamilton from University College London, where I am now doing my PhD. This project taught me how to use portable wearable brain imaging and physiological measurement technology to measure the responses I was looking for, as well as how we can use theatre for effective science communication.

Image 2: My Masters Graduation

Inspired by my master’s project I am currently a first-year PhD student in Cognitive Neuroscience at the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, utilising wearable technology to investigate the effects of theatrical training on social skills in humans. My journey to Neuroaesthetics encompasses who I am as an individual as I finally got to a place where I don’t have to work in a disjointed way with science and the arts, but I can be interdisciplinary and merge my interests in one project.

To end I’ll summarise the top tips that I mentioned along my journey that can help you establish yourself within the field.

  1. Find supervisors, teachers, or mentors that can direct and aid you along this journey. I was able to easily navigate my way through the field due to the supervisors that I had, so it's important to make sure that you find staff that are interested in the field and can direct you into where you need to go and provide you with opportunities.

  2. In terms of building your artistic practice, it is important to get involved with artistic endeavours internal or external to your institution. Check out afterschool clubs or societies and local theatre or art gallery youth collectives.

  3. Lastly, be creative in how you choose what steps to take next in your life, there are so many skills that can contribute to research within the field so never limit yourself. Never think that only one specific path can get you here because one branch doesn’t make the whole tree.

- Dwaynica Greaves, Neuroaesthetician


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