Visible thoughts at the fringes of consciousness

时间:2019-02-28 07:01:03166网络整理admin

Imogen Stidworthy By Julian Richards John’s heart stopped when he was kicked in the chest. His brain was starved of oxygen and he stopped communicating. For years, at best he seemed minimally conscious, at worst, vegetative. That is until he was put into a brain scanner and asked to imagine he was playing tennis. Up lit his pre-motor cortex. How about walking through a house? On went the parahippocampal gyrus. The neuroscientists watching his brain asked him to think “tennis” for “yes”, and “house” for “no”, and so John began a conversation for the first time in 15 years. Adrian Owen’s team at the University of Western Ontario in Canada had been having conversations like this for six years before John got his chance to prove his consciousness using this technique. But this was not like any of the other conversations. John told them something they could not have known otherwise: that he was not in pain. Owen’s case studies are among the most memorable pieces in Tracing the edges of consciousness, the latest part of the Wellcome Collection’s States of Mind show, which kicked off in October 2015 with Ann Veronica Janssens’s Yellowbluepink. Owen’s exhibit isn’t aesthetically arresting: it’s just a small screen displaying simple explanatory text and the crucial fMRI images, with a journal reference displayed on the wall alongside. But it achieves something that people have been trying to do for centuries – it makes a thought visible. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. The scans make blood in the brain visible, and Owen’s method ensures that the patterns correspond to thoughts. The thoughts themselves elude us, just as they did René Descartes centuries ago. His book Man, published in 1662, years after its author’s death, confronts visitors as they enter the exhibition. It lies open at an illustration of a dissected brain that reveals the pineal gland, where he thought the mind, or soul, was to be found. As insightful as Descartes was wrong, Santiago Ramón y Cajal transformed neurology in the early 20th century with beautiful ink drawings of brain cells, a line of which fill a nearby wall. Cajal Legacy, Instituto Cajal, (CSIC), Madrid Knowing the work of Descartes and Cajal is one thing; seeing the originals of these remarkable maps of the immaterial is another matter. Even the exhibition’s science adviser Anil Seth, co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex, UK, said he had never seen the original Cajal drawings before. As he told me, the day-to-day work of science is pretty mundane, so a working scientist can marvel over these artefacts quite as much as a member of the public can. All exhibitions aim to modify the visitor’s consciousness, but Seth’s own piece in this show messes with your mind more directly than most. Spend enough time with his touchscreen brain-trainer and you could give yourself grapheme-colour synaesthesia, in which letters evoke specific colours – as they did for the novelist Vladimir Nabokov (the exhibition also has some fun with watercolours of Nabokov’s alphabet). Synaesthesia is a perfect topic for the Wellcome Collection to address, given its remit of mediating between art and science. It’s a pity that another notable synaesthete, the painter Wassily Kandinsky, is represented in the show by a book of his art theory rather than his art. That said, his 1914 book Concerning the Spiritual in Art explores the connections the artist perceived between music and painting, and his augmented perception of colour, to make a case for abstract art. In both art and science, as Seth said, it’s on the fringes of consciousness that the interesting stuff happens. Not all the fringes are as enjoyable to explore as synaesthesia. The Whisper Heard, a 2003 sound and video installation by Imogen Stidworthy, mingles the voice of the artist’s young son, learning to speak for the first time, with that of a man trying to do the same thing as an adult after a stroke has affected the language centres of his brain. It’s nice to hear the child’s voice and heartbreaking to hear the man’s, although his struggle to recall and form words creates a sort of frightening poetry. The show also covers such juicy topics as sleepwalking, lucid dreaming, nightmares and false memory. Mapping a no-man’s land between art and science, the work here helps give the exhibition something of a cabinet of curiosities feel rather than our familiar, more sober museums. That makes it interestingly hard to immediately classify exhibits. On a shelf, for instance, there is a ring-binder, a dull-looking professional report, with the title: Accidental Awareness under General Anaesthesia in the United Kingdom (2014). As I considered the nightmarish possibilities of this, I wondered if it was an artist’s particularly deadpan joke (it wasn’t). There was one exhibit that left me baffled. Next to Francis Crick’s notes on consciousness were some other items from the late biologist’s archive: a collection of plasticine objects. I searched the display case for a label – in vain. So I asked Seth, who knew Crick, what they were. He didn’t know. No one did. That’s why there was no label. With Crick’s consciousness gone, there were no words. States of Mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness, Wellcome Collection, London, to 16 October More on these topics: