Academics & Research News

Science and art come together through brainwaves

The UH Department of Engineer and Computer Science is performing an experiment at the Menil Collection designed to capture brain waves that show a person’s emotional reaction to an art exhibit.

The experiment is conducted by having people attending a specific art exhibit wear an electroencephalography skullcap that consists of electrodes recording the brain activity through the scalp of the user. The electrodes are embedded within a helmet or elastic cap. Biomedical engineering professor Jose Contreras-Vidal said that his partnership with local artist Dario Robleto began several months ago, when he was visited by Robleto about his brain-machine interface work, in which the artist was interested.

“Dario is very interested in science and technology, and I explained to him the challenges of acquiring EEG data from a large number of people in real-world settings,” Contreras-Vidal said.

“It became clear that his exhibit and my research could work together to address the scientific challenges while exploring the neural basis of aesthetics and testing the devices themselves.”

The exhibit is called “The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed,” where Robleto explores the history of the heartbeat. He said that human emotion as a form of artwork became his passion when he discovered the story of a woman who tried to record her heartbeat and send it to her lover.

“For me, I always had both science and art in my life,” Robleto said. “I was a biology major while pursuing art with all my heart. What excites me about the experiment is that I can now contribute to science.”

Robleto said that he always had a good relationship with UH, since the University’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts previously funded research he conducted. He said that professor Contreras-Vidal was instantly interested in a partnership.

“He immediately realized the need for art and science to help each other,” Robleto said.

Besides entertaining the museum’s audience, the EEG experiment is also a premature step to furthering brain technology. Robleto said that capturing human emotion towards a specific event is the path to combining mechanical movement with emotion. That is how body prostheses work, Robleto said.

Biotechnology senior Andre Sigora said that participating in the experiment has been a unique opportunity for him.

“I was more than willing to participate in this project, because for me, it represents science almost as a state-of-the-art concept,” Sigora said. “Bringing the knowledge and experience from the everyday lab activities to the general public is a huge part of science itself.”

Sigora added that he is fascinated by art and science for being “unknown and mysterious” and that “there’s nothing more unknown than exploring patterns in people’s brain waves while they observe art.”

“Any volunteer can put the EEG cap on and see his brain waves in real time,” Sigora said. “Although there’s not much to really interpret right-on, they can distinguish on the waves eye-blinking, clenching your teeth and some other minor movements.”

Robleto’s “The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed,” will be at the Menil Collection every Saturday from 3 to 6 p.m. until Jan. 4, along with UH’s EEG skullcap research experiment for any volunteers willing to attend and participate. For more information, call The Menil Collection at 713-525-9400.

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