Technology with attitude

The Quantified Writer: monitoring the physiology of the creative process

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Award-winning Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg at work while attached to electrodes. Photo credit: Michael Nagle – The New York Times

The creative process is never an easy one to define. For Arnon Grunberg, however, that’s not an insurmountable challenge: the multi-award-winning Dutch writer wrote his latest novella wearing an electrode cap in the hope of capturing the essence of creativity.Wired up to a portable lab from Noldus and with data collected by TMSi, Grunberg has been the subject to the intense examination of the 28 electrodes on his scalp, plus cameras to scrutinize his facial expressions, sensors to measure his heart rate and galvanic skin response, and a questionnaire to capture his subjective experience – all designed to pick up just about every physiological correlate of emotion as he undergoes the creative process of writing a novel.

“You could call this the demythologising of writing,” says Grunborn, who hopes the experiment will uncover what influences the creative flow. “Can you reveal yourself, not by using stories and interviews, but by data?”

The project is being overseen by two Dutch neuroscientists, Ysbrand van der Werf and Jan van Erp, who undoubtedly believe you can. They are extending their expertise in cognition and emotion to the relatively new field of neuroaesthetics, and this latest study is one of the most extensive and ambitious explorations of how we appreciate art.

Using the portable lab, they aim to track changes in Grunberg’s physiological data – over the course of several hours a day, each day for two weeks – with the movement of his cursor, in order to get a reading of his emotional state at each point of the novel’s development.

Photo credit: Michael Nagle - The New York Times
Photo credit: Michael Nagle – The New York Times

The experiment doesn’t end there, however. “I would also really like to know more about what readers feel and experience when they are reading my books,” he says. The ultimate aim is to determine whether readers undergo the same emotive experience as the writer at corresponding parts of a text – so once the book is published next year, 50 readers will also be hooked up and examined while they read the text, and their reactions compared to his.

“Will readers of Arnon’s text feel they understand or embody the same emotions he had while he was writing it, or is reading a completely different process?” asks van der Werf.

Grunberg, meanwhile, is looking at the bigger picture. “Can measuring lead to self-knowledge?”

“And can you control what is known about you?”

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Via: The New York Times