The film Inscapes was created to help solve an immediate, practical problem inherent to a branch of neuroimaging research called “resting state” functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Usually for these scans, subjects lay inside the MRI magnet and look at what we call a fixation cross (a static plus sign) for about 6-10 minutes. They are asked to keep still and to try and stay awake. The absence of a task enables us to study brain activity that occurs “at rest” and has greatly expanded our understanding of how the brain is functionally organized into networks. But for children, this supposedly task-free state is actually a very difficult task.
Our idea to help with this was to create a naturalistic viewing paradigm (i.e., a movie) that would enable children to stay still more easily while also not driving all of the cognitive processes evoked by conventional movies. I hired two amazing artists (Tobias Hoffman, www.man-made-blossom.com in Germany and Jodi S. van der Woude in Canada) to work on the visuals and to compose the score for the film. Both Tobias and Jodi have an affinity and aptitude for scientific thinking, including statistics and math, so the work was an intercalation of art and science from the beginning.
We approached the inside of the MRI magnet like we were making a site-specific installation, and adopted aesthetic constraints based on the need to scientifically control for different things like luminance levels and sound density. I also had an amazing team of developmental specialists such as child psychoanalysts and psychiatrists to consult with as the project evolved. The resulting film is a slow-moving animation that adults enjoy, but that children find highly engaging. We have tested the film for both head movement and brain responses, and so far, feel that the investment has paid off. We also shared the film as part of the “open science” ethos of the resting state community, and about 12 or 14 different labs are currently using it in Canada, Taiwan, Ireland, Germany, and the U.S. One of the propositions that has emerged from this project is that perhaps engaging professional artists in the creation of scientific stimuli might be a novel way to improve our data.