The wavelength project and Reflecting Nature exhibition


wavelength project logo Logo design: Mark Ware

What is the wavelength project ?

Mark Ware’s wavelength project began in 2015 as an Arts Council England supported artistic and neuroscience collaboration between Mark and Prof Hugo D Critchley and his colleagues at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, University of Sussex.  The project began by investigating how natural versus artificial sounds and light affect the brain.

(left) Palace Pier, Brighton , (centre) Professor Hugo Critchley, (right) Mark Ware Photos: Mark and Sara Ware

(left) Palace Pier, Brighton , (centre) Professor Hugo D Critchley, (right) Mark Ware   Photos: (left & centre) Mark and (right) Sara Ware

In particular, focused on inherent qualities in natural sounds that may benefit us in terms of wellbeing and health and that may also contribute to the understanding and creation of certain types of time-based art.  Here is a summary statement about the project’s investigations in natural and artificial sounds so far, provided by the Sackler Centre:

The sounds of nature may help you think clearly

Photos: Mark Ware

Photos: Mark Ware

Cassandra D. Gould, Oliver Sparasci, Alex Mees, David Watson1, Mark Ware, Sarah Garfinkel1, Hugo D. Critchley. Department of Psychiatry, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Brighton, UK. Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.

Public Statement about the investigations into natural sounds

‘It is a commonly held belief that sounds from nature may be soothing and restorative, while the hustle and bustle of artificial, urban living may have less positive effects on mental health. As yet, however, there has been little scientific research into the effects of auditory environment on performance and brain activity.

In collaboration with auditory and visual artist Mark Ware, researchers from Brighton and Sussex Medical School and the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science have undertaken a brain imaging experiment to investigate how auditory environments affect our brain. In the experiment, 16 volunteers listened to carefully composed ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ soundscapes while their ‘resting state’ brain activity was recorded. When the volunteers were listening to natural sounds, the brain activation pattern reflected broad monitoring of the external environment (increased cuneus connectivity) and there was an improvement in their task performance. When listening to artificial sounds, however, there was an increased connectivity with a part of the brain involved in self-referential and evaluative thought processing (the medial prefrontal cortex), and task performance was impaired.

An increase in self-referential thought processing may be detrimental to attention and focus, as the self-referential thoughts compete for resources and distract from the task in hand. High levels of self-referential thoughts are also associated with anxiety and other mood disorders. This investigation suggests that exposure to natural sounds may be beneficial to mental health, by reducing the likelihood of self-referential and evaluative thoughts, while improving broad attentional focus. The researchers emphasise that the work is exploratory, and further experiments will be required to strengthen the claims. This initial finding may, however, be relevant to clinical practice and attempts to reduce the impact of self-referential thoughts in anxiety and mood disorders. Importantly, the research helps to explain why time spent outside can be beneficial to our mental health, and provides a creative solution to combatting the stress of our increasingly urbanised lifestyles.’

For more information about this study:

Staffordshire University’s involvement in the wavelength project

(left) Dr Nichola Street and Dr Gemma Hurst, Staffordshire University, (centre) Reflecting Nature art exhibition logo, (right) eye tracking at Staffordshire University

(left) Dr Nichola Street and Dr Gemma Hurst, Staffordshire University, (centre) Reflecting Nature art exhibition logo, (right) eye tracking at Staffordshire University Photos and logo design: Mark Ware

Since 2015, the wavelength project has expanded to also include a collaboration with Dr Nichola Street and Dr Gemma Hurst, lecturers and researchers at Staffordshire University’s School of Psychology, Sport and Exercise.  The collaboration has resulted in an Arts Council England supported art/science touring exhibition entitled, Reflecting Nature. Dr Street says: ‘Most of my research to date has involved trying to unpick the things that contribute to aesthetic appreciation with a particular focus on complexity in visual scenes and fractal patterns (self-similar patterns commonly found in the natural environment). Trying to understand preference and experiences of beauty has long been the domain of artists and philosophers but the field of empirical aesthetics takes a scientific stance from which to explore experimentally, responses to beauty. The creation and importance that art and beauty play in our daily lives has always interested me. Through the Reflecting Nature touring exhibition collaboration with Mark Ware, we are trying to achieve scientific engagement from the public on a topic that influences our everyday life – understanding beauty/visual preference.

Psychologists have long known that the environment in which we spend time in is important, and that nature has particularly beneficial properties. The Reflecting Nature project aims to provide insights in to the role individual differences play in aesthetic responses to natural and built environments.  We are exploring how these responses can be enhanced and magnified using artistic outputs to provoke particular psychological states. The potential impact of the findings include dissemination of the ideas into immersive environments and design interventions that can be used to increase psychological states and stress recovery responses (making people feel better). These can be used in a number of environments in which immobility is high (hospitals, prisons, schools and even space travel). The project and collaboration are providing a unique and fantastic opportunity to make a difference to the lives of many.’

(left to right) Reflecting Nature logos and touring venues, Dr Nichola Street and Dr Gemma Hurst     Graphics and photos: Mark Ware

Mark Ware created a series of new digital artworks in consultation with Dr Street for the touring exhibition that have been shown at a variety of venues, ranging from Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre as part of the city’s European City of Science 2016 events,  to cathedrals.   The touring exhibition explored how we respond to natural and artificial stimuli. It consists of sixteen digital prints which use imagery of the natural environment and symmetrical patterns, limited edition copies of which are for sale.

Reflecting Nature artworks  Photo and artwork: Mark Ware

As well as being able to enjoy the artworks, those attending the Reflecting Nature exhibition were also invited to contribute data to a scientific project being led by the University of Staffordshire psychologists that is designed to look at how we respond to artwork, and different environments. Members of the public took part during workshops using eye tracking equipment, and by performing specially designed response tasks.

Reflecting Nature exhibition at Exeter Cathedral’s Chapter House, September 2016  Photo: Mark Ware

Most people believe that the natural environment is good for us in terms of wellbeing and health. The wavelength project is seeking to provide scientific evidence to assess this belief, with artistic outcomes influenced by the results.  In the long term, it aims to deliver results that may be of benefit to many people, including those who have experienced brain injury or suffer from disorders of consciousness. If, as Mark and others believe, exposure to the natural environment is found to be beneficial to our conscious experience, this will support initiatives to protect, enhance and restore wildlife and our natural resources, on land and at sea.  A vitally important outcome of the wavelength project is to raise awareness of this need.  In recognition of this important direction, Kent Wildlife Trust partnered with the project.  The Trust is advising the wavelength project team on all issues concerning the natural environment and are collaborating on a variety of creative activities.

The wavelength project collaborations will inform the development and creation of a series of new future artistic outcomes, including original music compositions, multimedia performances, sound and light installations and creative workshops. 

‘Progress is made when crossing frontiers. Mark Ware’s vision of linking up-to-date research in neuroscience and circadian rhythms to artistic experiences with light and sound has vast potential in that respect. I am excited to see where this project leads us.’ – Dr Oliver Angerer, Human Exploration Science Coordinator, European Space Agency (until August 1st 2014) Currently Team Leader Exploration at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Cologne

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