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Sensors hooked to a headpiece of electrodes worn by Arnon Grunberg, a Dutch writer, as he writes a novella at his apartment in New York, Nov. 21, 2013. Researchers are tracking brain waves and other data with the electrodes as Grunberg writes the novella, and after the work is published, members of the public will be similarly studied as they read it. (Michael Nagle/The New York Times)

Michael Nagle • New York Times,

Arnon Grunberg, a Dutch writer, writes a novella while wearing a headpiece of electrodes at his apartment in New York, Nov. 21, 2013. Researchers are tracking brain waves and other data with the electrodes as Grunberg writes the novella, and after the work is published, members of the public will be similarly studied as they read it. (Michael Nagle/The New York Times)

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Arnon Grunberg wrote a novella in his New York apartment while wearing electrodes to track his brain waves. Eventually, readers will be wired and studied.

Photos by Michael Nagle • New York Times,

Wired up, artist seeks to document the source of creativity

  • Article by: JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
  • New York Times
  • December 7, 2013 - 3:47 PM

Writers working on new books often complain about the pressure. But Dutch novelist Arnon Grunberg, sitting at a cluttered desk in his shoe-box apartment in New York, had more reason to kvetch than most. First, there was the novella he was trying to get off the ground, the latest in a string of more than a dozen books that have made Grunberg, at 42, the son of German-born Holocaust survivor, perhaps his country’s most celebrated novelist and a literary star in Europe. But more pressing was his headgear, a sort of bathing cap affixed with 28 electrodes that made him look like an extra in a mash-up of “A Clockwork Orange.”

“After about a half-hour, your head starts to hurt,” Grunberg said, as a technician poured water over some of the electrodes to improve their conductivity. “Also, it can get a bit drippy.”

The cap, the novella and the technician were all part of Grunberg’s latest project, a literary stunt turned lab experiment that combines the rigor of academic neuroscience with the self-obsessive spirit of the “quantified self” movement, which has inspired people to track the minutiae of their lives. Grunberg spent several hours a day writing his novella, while a battery of sensors and cameras tracked his brain waves, heart rate, galvanic skin response (an electrical measure of emotional arousal) and facial expressions. Next fall, when the book is published, 50 people in the Netherlands will read it under similarly controlled circumstances, sensors and all.

Researchers will then crunch the data in the hope of finding patterns that may help illuminate links between the way art is created and enjoyed, and possibly the nature of creativity itself. “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?” said Ysbrand van der Werf, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, who designed the experiment with Jan van Erp of the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research. “These are some of the questions we want to answer.”

This experiment is connected with the field of neuroaesthetics, which over the past decade or so has attempted to uncover the neural underpinnings of our experience of music and visual art, using brain imaging technology. Slowly, a small but growing number of researchers have also begun using similar tools to scrutinize the perhaps more elusive experience of literary reading.

Last year, Stanford researchers drew headlines with the results of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI) experiment showing that different regions of the brain were activated when subjects switched from reading Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” for pleasure to reading it analytically. This fall, a study out of the New School for Social Research showed that readers of literary fiction scored higher on tests of empathy than readers of commercial fiction.

Grunberg seems to be the first novelist to submit not just his work, but also his own creative processes to direct scientific scrutiny. The experiment, Grunberg said, emerged out of a desire to play with the darker possibilities of e-reader technology. If Amazon can track where Kindle users stop reading, he wondered, how else might an author be able to spy on his audience? His Dutch publisher, Nijgh & Van Ditmar, persuaded him to make himself part of the experiment. And once he connected with the neuroscientists, the transformation from provocateur to guinea pig was complete. “I was just the object,” he said. “It’s like having someone else embedded in my own brain.”

But the real quantitative science will come later, Van der Werf said, when the researchers measure the novella’s effect on the 50 readers.

Grunberg, who estimated that he would take another five months to finish the book, said the sensors had interfered less with his creative process than he had feared, but he did allow that the experiment itself might end up figuring in the book. “I find myself having all these fantasies,” he said, “like that I was part of an experiment supposedly looking at my brain while I was writing, but the real point was something else entirely.”

 

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