123Professor Tatiana Chernigovskay is Director of the Institute for Cognitive Studies at St Petersburg University. She spoke at a conference of the all-Russian non-governmental organisation Russian Association for the Promotion of Science about how art and creativity can help study the brain.

Unlike other species, humans live not only in the material but also in the non-material world of ideas, which they create themselves. This includes the fields of mathematics, music, languages and visual images. It is often even more important for humans and imposes special responsibilities on brain researchers. Only in the convergence of all these fields can cognitive science study the most complex object in the world – the human brain and its functions.

‘When I was a student, it was believed that there were from five to ten types of neurons. However, by recent estimates, there are approximately 1,000 neurons. Moreover, neurons can be not only switched on or off. According to experts, they can exist in five different states,' said Tatiana Chernigovskaya. ‘If we multiply 85 billion neurons by five possible states and approximately 10,000 synaptic connections that link them to other neurons, we obtain an astronomical number – quadrillion. We are dealing with a highly complex neural hyper circuitry, which is constantly evolving according to its own laws and under the powerful influence of the external environment.’

Although scientists have been studying the brain for centuries, it is still often perceived as a biomachine, an extremely complex device designed to process information. In order to build a general idea of the brain research has therefore focused on collecting as much data as possible about neurons, their ensembles and the areas responsible for certain functions. However, this method will not give the desired result. Scaling up the results obtained in animal experiments will not help either.

neyronnye svyazi 1

The image is a representation of the connections that exist in the human brain. The connections that provide cognition are highlighted in yellow. Of all the creatures on the planet, only humans have such a neural network.

‘Our brain is a semiotic space. This means that it does not so much collect information as it creates it. The brain is a device that produces meanings,' noted Tatiana Chernigovskaya, Professor of St Petersburg University. ‘Roger Penrose is the Nobel Prize winner in Physics 2020 who is interested in the topics of brain and consciousness. He writes that there are no satisfactory models of brain functioning and suggests talking about high-level processes as some kind of quantum anomalies. According to him, not all processes that occur in the brain are computational, so modelling complex functions is fundamentally impossible. It is not that our devices are not advanced enough, and in the future science will evolve so that we will be able to do it. It is just that the brain has procedures that are not algorithmic in nature. Roger Penrose says that intelligence requires understanding, and understanding requires comprehension, that is, reflection. And how it happens on a formal level, we don't have the faintest idea.’

Tatiana Chernigovskaya stressed that a linear view of processes as complex as those that occur in the human brain is no longer possible, so a paradigm shift is needed. She therefore suggested looking at another direction, the direction of creativity. Just like a pearl in a shell needs something from the outside to get formed, the emergence of masterpieces of art or scientific discovery require a ‘wrong’ approach, on the verge of breaking the rules. ‘A logarithmic ruler is not a tool with which you make discoveries. Our brain is not a computer. Human art can show how this gigantic neural network creates worlds of music, mathematics or language,' said Tatiana Chernigovskaya. ‘In a way, it is cultural archaeology or even anthropology. If we continue going down the old path, looking at each individual neuron without an overall, completely different picture, we will end up walking in circles and making mistakes. Creativity, the ability to create something that has never existed before, by the power of thought alone, is what sets us apart from our neighbours on the planet. This is what we should be exploring, not the extra tens or hundreds of billions of neurons that provide the operations that are being carried out at an ever increasing speed.'

neyronnye svyazi 3

Studying the brain as a data storage and creator of information is only possible in the convergence of sciences, said Tatiana Chernigovskaya, Director of the Institute for Cognitive Studies at St Petersburg University. Scientists will be able to understand what to look for when they investigate the brain using natural science methods. They will be able to achieve this by combining the tools of neuroscience, the language of mathematics and art, and linguistics. This is because it is language that gives us most of the information about how we systematise the world.

Tatiana Chernigovskaya said that different neural networks operate in the human brain. For example, the default one controls autobiographical memory, imagination and reference –  the ability to evaluate one's actions. However, there is another neural network that is directed not inward, like the previous one, but outward. It is responsible for goal-oriented behaviour and its control.

‘If we want to understand how creative thinking occurs, we need to: free the brain from logics; reduce control by mechanisms of concentrated attention; and increase the role and proportion of networks that enable imagination and the voluntary flow of consciousness. This is serious data from the laboratories, and this is what we see when we map what goes on in a jazz musician's head during improvisation’, said Professor Tatiana Chernigvskaya. ‘Cognitive science and neuroscience in general will not make the leap unless we look at the other side – the side of challenging tasks, the supreme manifestations of human genius. This is a very difficult road. One has to go beyond MRI results and neural splices. It is necessary to: read letters and diaries of the creators and the records of their conversations with each other; gaze into the paintings of the great masters of painting, literature and music; and study drafts and sketches, which, given a careful and very difficult study, will show us how their thought went.’

The Russian Association for the Promotion of Science aims to promote the role of science in Russian society through the development of all its branches – natural, humanitarian, social and technical, as well as interdisciplinary research. The Presidium of the organisation is headed by Evgeny Velikhov, Honorary President of National Research Center ‘Kurchatov Institute’. It also includes: Mikhail Kovalchuk, President of the National Research Center ‘Kurchatov Institute’ and Dean of the Faculty of Physics; Tatiana Chernigovskaya, Director of the Institute for Cognitive Studies at St Petersburg University; and other distinguished Russian scientists and scholars.