What was the Wavelength Project?
The Wavelength Project began in 2015 as an Arts Council England and Kent Wildlife Trust supported art/neuroscience collaboration between Mark Ware and Prof Hugo D Critchley and his colleagues at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science (Brighton and Sussex Medical School / University of Sussex). Later that year, the Wavelength Project expanded to also include a collaboration with Dr Nichola Street and Dr Gemma Hurst, psychology lecturers and researchers at Staffordshire University’s School of Life Sciences and Education. At the centre of both collaborations was a focus on the potential benefits of exposure to the natural environment in terms of wellbeing and health. These collaborations have been the inspiration for the creation of an art/science charity called, Reflecting Nature in art & science.
The collaboration between Mark Ware and Prof Critchley (Brighton and Sussex Medical School/University of Sussex):
Mark Ware and Prof Critchley decided that the first stage of their collaboration should concentrate on investigations in natural versus artificial sounds (with the intention of exploring natural versus artificial light at a later date). In particular, they were interested in exploring whether or not there are inherent qualities in natural sounds that may be of benefit in terms of wellbeing and health and that may also contribute to the understanding and creation of certain types of time-based art.
Mark supplied Hugo and his neuroscience colleagues with 100 audio recordings of natural and artificial sounds. Participants in a study were asked if they were able to identify the sounds. This allowed the neuroscientists to group a selection of the recordings into one the following four categories: ‘Natural Familiar’, ‘Natural Unfamiliar’, ‘Artificial Familiar’ and ‘Artificial Unfamiliar’. From this, Mark created four soundscapes, each exclusively featuring sounds from one of these categories. The neuroscientists then asked for participants’ preference responses, and measured their brain and body responses, to each of the soundscapes.
The results of this scientific investigation were published earlier in 2017 as a Scientific Reports paper that can be found at: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep45273
Brighton and Sussex Medical School published the following about the results of the investigation:
‘The gentle burbling of a brook, or the sound of the wind in the trees can physically change our mind and bodily systems, helping us to relax. New research explains how, for the first time.’
‘The gentle burbling of a brook, or the sound of the wind in the trees can physically change our mind and bodily systems, helping us to relax. New research explains how, for the first time.
Researchers at BSMS found that playing ‘natural sounds’ affected the bodily systems that control the flight-or-fright and rest-digest autonomic nervous systems, with associated effects in the resting activity of the brain. While naturalistic sounds and ‘green’ environments have frequently been linked with promoting relaxation and wellbeing, until now there has been no scientific consensus as to how these effects come about. The study has been published in Scientific Reports.
The lead author, Dr Cassandra Gould van Praag said: “We are all familiar with the feeling of relaxation and ‘switching-off’ which comes from a walk in the countryside, and now we have evidence from the brain and the body which helps us understand this effect. This has been an exciting collaboration between artists and scientists, and it has produced results which may have a real-world impact, particularly for people who are experiencing high levels of stress.”
In collaboration with audio visual artist Mark Ware, the team at BSMS conducted an experiment where participants listened to sounds recorded from natural and artificial environments, while their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner, and their autonomic nervous system activity was monitored via minute changes in heart rate. The team found that activity in the default mode network of the brain (a collection of areas which are active when we are resting) was different depending on the sounds playing in the background:
When listening to natural sounds, the brain connectivity reflected an outward-directed focus of attention; when listening to artificial sounds, the brain connectivity reflected an inward-directed focus of attention, similar to states observed in anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. There was also an increase in rest-digest nervous system activity (associated with relaxation of the body) when listening to natural compared with artificial sounds, and better performance in an external attentional monitoring task.
Interestingly, the amount of change in nervous system activity was dependant on the participants’ baseline state: Individuals who showed evidence of the greatest stress before starting the experiment showed the greatest bodily relaxation when listening to natural sounds, while those who were already relaxed in the brain scanner environment showed a slight increase in stress when listening to natural compared with artificial sounds.
The study of environmental exposure effects is of growing interest in physical and mental health settings, and greatly influences issues of public health and town planning. This research is first to present an integrated behavioural, physiological and brain exploration of this topic.
Artist Mark Ware commented: “Art-science collaborations can be problematic, often due to a lack of shared knowledge and language (scientific and artistic), but the team at BSMS has generously sought common ground, which has resulted in this exciting and successful outcome. We have plans to continue collaborating and I am keen to explore how the results of this work might be applied to the creation and understanding of time-based art (installations, multimedia performance, and film) for the benefit of people in terms of wellbeing and health.’ – BSMS
The collaboration between Mark Ware and Dr Nichola Street (Staffordshire University) and Dr Gemma Hurst (Staffordshire University):
The Wavelength Project’s collaboration with Stafforshire University’s Dr Nichola Street and Dr Gemma Hurst resulted in an Arts Council England supported art/science national touring exhibition entitled, Reflecting Nature (2016/17). The Reflecting Nature exhibition featured 16 digital images that Mark created in consultation with Dr Street and Dr Hurst, that contained two things in particular that have been shown to trigger positive responses in the viewer: Symmetrical patterns and images of nature. The psychologists were keen to see if artistic intervention can result in increased positive responses to these two features.
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 psychologists that was 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. In addition, lab-based investigations were also conducted at Staffordshire University.
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 achieved 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 aimed to provide insights into 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.”
Most people believe that the natural environment is good for us in terms of wellbeing and health. The Wavelength Project has sought 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 Ware 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 has been to raise awareness of this need. In recognition of this important direction, Kent Wildlife Trust partnered with the project. Led by Stevie Rice, the Trust’s dynamic and innovative Head of People Engagement, Kent Wildlife Trust has advised the Wavelength Project team on all issues concerning the natural environment and has collaborated on a variety of creative public engagement activities.