Q & A with John Krakauer

John Krakauer, M.A., M.D., directs the Brain, Learning, Animation and Movement Lab at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Krakauer’s research explores the use of “motivated movement” in stroke recovery. His work has been profiled in the New Yorker magazine and on film by National Geographic, CBS and the Boston Globe. The IAM Lab sat down with him to discuss the role aesthetics plays in his work.

IAM Lab: How does your work fit into the field of neuroaesthetics?

JK: We believe that beauty, and particularly beauty that elicits movements, enhances learning, brain plasticity and recovery. So, in other words, immersive, beautiful, rewarding experiences are therapeutically beneficial. And, we believe that people enjoy moving. You don’t just move to get from point A to B. That’s why people like to play sports and dance, because they enjoy the movement itself. So, enjoying movement for its non-instrumental use is aesthetic. It’s like when you put your hand out of the car window to feel the air. You enjoy that movement of the air over your arm.

IAM Lab: So, can enjoyment of movement be beneficial to someone recovering from a stroke?

JK: Yes, I think that motivated movements are more likely to keep you on task and more likely to lead to learning, trial by trial. I believe that we know that reward and motivation enhance learning rates and increase your performance.

IAM Lab: What are some examples of reward and motivation?

JK: If a monkey is asked to make an eye movement to a target, and one of those targets gives him a sip of juice, the quality of the movement is better toward that target. He’s more skilled in his movement to that target because of the reward.

IAM Lab: Do we need to understand the scientific reason people enjoy moving or art in order to improve therapy in a clinical setting?

JK: That’s a great question, and the answer is no. And, to be clear, there is no scientific answer to that question. Even so, you can empirically titrate the space. You may have a hunch or a starting idea like we did in our research, for example, that people like light and space and dolphins more than sharks, and then you start from there and experiment. We don’t have a definition of truth, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have notions of what lying is in the courtroom. We don’t give up on everyday use of the term “truth” just because we can’t necessarily define it.

IAM Lab: The context of art matters so much to perception and enjoyment. What is deemed “beautiful” also has strong cultural underpinnings. How do you account for that in your work?

JK: Some things don’t vary that much. For example, if you show people across the world a jagged shape or a teardrop shape and ask them to choose the one they like, more people consistently choose the teardrop. But you’re right that these things can be modulated on top by culture.

In our research we had preconceived notions that swimming, oceans, the color blue and dolphins would all be appealing. But, the number of knobs you can tweak in terms of color, creatures, and environments could be infinite. So, you take your best guess and then start to test on top of that. A kid might want a killer whale or dragon instead of a dolphin, but the underlying concept is similar. We’re asking: can we bring what we know about learning, practice and plasticity and combine that scientific knowledge with what people love to watch, Pixar movies for example? We want to bring together the best of art and science and combine them to understand how motivation can impinge upon normal learning.

IAM Lab: What are you most excited about in your work right now?

JK: I’m most interested in the trial we’re currently conducting, to see how it turns out. Patients early after stroke “become the dolphin” in three weeks of training in our immersive world. We have an exoskeleton — it’s a physics engine — and they use it to power the dolphin. It helps you move your arm much more than you normally would to encourage exploration and arm movements when your brain is plastic after injury. We have about 21 patients enrolled at this point. Hopefully we’ll have about 30 patients by the end of the year.

IAM Lab: Applications for this kind of work go far beyond clinical settings. In higher education, studies show that students who read a positive message about their abilities prior to taking a test do better than a matched comparison group who do not receive the message. It’s amazing how much messages and environment can influence behavior and achievement. How are you dreaming big about neuroaesthetics?

JK: Take what you just said, but instead of a single motivating message, imagine there was science behind the art throughout the spaces you worked in, the music you heard or the design of the hospital room you’re in. Those environmental or aesthetic factors could do the work of the positive message 100 times over. In those environments, you’d do better work. You’d have better outcomes. That’s what neuroaesthetics is all about.

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