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Photo by Ioulex for The Wall Street Journal

Photo by Ioulex for The Wall Street Journal

Artist Lia Chavez Lends Her Mind to Science

By Kelly Crow

Lia Chavez, in bare feet and a flowing floral tunic, moves with a ballerina’s poise as she descends into her studio—a former garage attached to a rambling midcentury ranch on the eastern tip of New York’s Long Island. After six years of living and working in Manhattan, the 38-year-old moved here part time in July and began renovating with her husband, David Shing. The exterior is now a charcoal black, while every interior surface—floors, walls, ceilings, steps—is a high-gloss white. The effect is stark yet Zen, not unlike the artist herself.

The chemist Blair Munhofen built the house in 1955 and lived there for decades. His basement—once filled with beakers, stands and clamps—now stores Chavez’s paintings in cardboard tubes. “You can just feel the creativity here,” she says.

That’s not an idle comment from Chavez, whose artworks exploring the elusive triggers and effects of creativity have earned her lecture invitations from the Tate in London and collectors like the actress Isabella Rossellini.

At first glance, Chavez seems more mystic than academic, with her penchant for wearing coaster-size earrings, feathery hats and heavy streaks of eye shadow in red and blue and black. But like her new home and studio, her work has a scientific background, and her recent collaborations with neuroscientists could help answer a question that has eluded researchers for decades: What does the creative spark look like in the brain?

Despite the fanfare (and TED talks) around creativity, only a few neuroscientists have captured images of the brain undergoing a spontaneous aha moment, which is difficult to induce in a sterile clinical setting. London neuroscientist Joydeep Bhattacharya has tried for more than a decade, but his subjects have repeatedly told him that they get their best ideas while in the kitchen or the shower—not while wearing a brainwave monitor in a lab.

“Then we met Lia, and we got our paradigm shift,” says Bhattacharya, who is head of the Brain and Cognition Cluster of the psychology department at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Because she happens to get inspired when she meditates, she can trigger it systematically, so long as we can give her time to get settled.”

When Chavez reaches a state of deep, sustained meditation, she sees strobelike bursts of light arcing across her mind’s eye, a phenomenon frequently reported by experienced meditators. These flickers, she says, are the source of her creativity and her art, and she can conjure them on command, in her all-white home or a more clinical setting.

“It sounds so unscientific to meditate in a lab,” Chavez says. “But that’s the forefront of science—to try new things.”

For the past two years, she has subjected herself to a battery of brain-scanning experiments, meditating for up to eight hours at a stretch with her head covered by a wiry, swim-cap-like electroencephalograph, or EEG, monitor that tracks her brain activity. During these sessions, her reports of light storms correlated with sharp increases in her neural activity, specifically her gamma waves—electromagnetic frequencies in the brain associated with aiding memory, focus and feelings of well-being. But what surprised researchers was where in the brain this activity was taking place. Chavez’s occipital quadrant, which processes visual stimuli, was highly active during these light-filled sessions, even though the artist was meditating with her eyes closed. “What she’s seeing isn’t an illusion or her imagination,” says Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, Bhattacharya’s co-lead researcher, who lectures at Queen Mary University of London. “It’s coming from a primal area of her brain.” When Chavez tried meditating while suffering from a cold and jet lag, she saw nothing—and neither did the researchers watching for spikes in her neural activity.

When the artist meditated, Luft found that gamma-wave activity in her occipital quadrant pulsed at rates up to 700% higher than when she was resting. To Chavez, this link between her creative visions and her elevated gamma levels amounts to a potential breakthrough because it suggests a possible way to expedite creativity on cue. For people with low gamma levels, Luft says, it might now be possible to supply them a creative jolt using a technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation, which shoots magnetic impulses of gamma waves directly into their occipital quadrants.

But it’s too soon to conclude that gamma waves can incite creativity on command, researchers say. Each brain recruits a distinct and complex neural network to solve problems and form ideas. Still, it’s a first step, paving the road for further research. A 2009 study from Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve problems, like anagrams, when their brains were stimulated with gamma or delta waves. Bhattacharya and Luft submitted their early findings about the occipital quadrant’s connection to Chavez’s creative triggers to an academic journal, and they’re planning a longer case study. “Now her work with light makes more sense,” Luft says. “I can’t exactly imagine what she’s seeing when she meditates, but clearly she’s showing us through her art.”

Before the lab sessions, Chavez’s work was mostly in photography, sculpture, painting and performance art. Today nearly everything she does incorporates technology and biofeedback. Commissioned by the Art Production Fund to create a temporary piece for the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas, Chavez subverted the city’s reputation for frenetic hedonism with “The Octave of Visible Light: A Meditation Nightclub,” her multimedia performance installation. One by one she guided EEG-wearing participants through a custom meditation session in a dark room lit by a single laser light. As participants stilled their thoughts, their EEGs sent coded signals to emit specific sounds, and the light changed from red to orange to yellow to green and violet as they achieved deeper states of calm.

Chavez’s lab sessions confirmed to her that meditation could boost brain activity. “I basically wanted to help others have the same neurobiological experience,” she says. At least 4,500 people who participated in “Octave,” including a 6-year-old girl who, 30 seconds after putting on her headset, was “meditating at the level of a Tibetan monk,” the artist says.

Chavez’s artwork began exploring what she saw during meditation as early as 2010, but as the daughter of a scientist, she felt the tug to ground her practice in something verifiable. “I got to thinking, ‘Can science help me explore it better?’”

Her next piece may provide a few more clues. In September the portable speakers and headphones company B&O Play commissioned her next installation, an immersive room where she plans to invite 20 people at a time—the typical number for a scientific experiment—all of them outfitted with Emotiv EEG headsets. Instead of guided meditation, she plans to project sounds and meteorological lights that mimic her own meditative visions. The headsets will reveal how each person’s brain reacts—and if they react in a synchronous way—to what she sees when she closes her eyes.

“I don’t want science to become a prop,” Chavez says, “but it’s helping me better understand—and structure—creativity, and that’s exciting.” Dr. Luft and others say they’re standing by, eager to analyze the data as soon as Chavez gets it.

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