A few weeks ago, the CNS had Hugo Spiers present on his work (his slides and a video of his presentation are online). The neuroscientist brings together science and art: he researches spatial perception, place representation, as well as related memories and imaginations at his lab at the University College London Institute of Behavioral Neuroscience. Spiers uses a wide array of neuroscientific and behavioral tools to gain more scientific knowledge about brain function, and he explores the visual arts to represent and communicate precisely these findings. In his talk, Spiers called the two projects stemming from the latter the “secret, hidden part of [his] life.”
In collaboration with film makers and artists, Spiers developed two installations that he put on display in London: The first one described, Neurotopographics, traces the path of a visitor through the empty Gimpel Fils Gallery before the installation was put on display there. The three-part projection shows the visitor’s route through the museum on a video tape, the activity of his hippocampal cells in form of dynamic grids, as well as the changing light symbolized by developing and disappearing lines. A crackling audio track heightens the experimental character of the place-tracking as it reminds the informed listener of the sound of place cell recordings in the Wilson lab at MIT as seen on YouTube.
In Pattern Completion, competing woodland scenes are projected on different-sized glass spheres hanging in the dark, and visitors listen to the sounds that were recorded along with these videos. The goal of this installation is to show how memory works. More specifically, it illustrates the concept of pattern completion. If a neuronal pattern for a certain memory is established and consolidated, one part of the memory-building stimulus can cause remembrance of the whole. For instance, if a rose is seen, it is easy to imagine its scent after having seen and smelled a rose before. But pattern completion can be ambiguous: there may be more than one solution for the completion of a stimulus, and this is presented by the competing visual and auditory impressions in the installation. Spiers and his team modeled a pattern cell network on their computer to be able to realistically illustrate the “fight” between several memories for pattern completion. They slowed this simulation down and projected distinct woodland scenes on the individual glass spheres accordingly. Once the memory is unambiguously completed, all glass spheres show im-pressions of the same scene and the sound is coherent as well.
After positioning the two projects within the larger field of neuro-related art, Spiers briefly touched on the question of whether different types of artists “think differently about space.” The questionnaire-based research they conducted on this matter revealed that painters, sculptors, and architects indeed differ in their approach to photographs of spaces—painters seem to talk more about the “back” of a depicted room, whereas sculptors and architects perceive this as the “end” of the room. Moreover, architects seem to perceive pictured spaces as physical realities, whereas space remains more abstract in a painter’s eye.
In his conclusion, Spiers emphasized that both art and neuroscience can benefit from further engagement with each other since this broadens the experience and stimulates critical thinking in both science and the arts. Spiers also hopes to overcome the gap between art museums on the one hand, and science museums on the other hand.
Even though I wish Spiers best luck on making this dream of his come true, I am skeptical if it can be easily achieved. Despite possessing some foundational knowledge on place cells, for instance, I could not relate to Neurotopographics before given a scientific description of grid cells, and I doubt that an average museum visitor would be willing to listen to an approximately 20-minute explanation of the neuroscientific concepts behind it.
However, Pattern Completion appears to be more readily accessible—even without any knowledge of the scientific background. The glass spheres can potentially attract educationally disadvantaged strata by their sheer enchanting beauty. In my opinion, these individuals should be amongst Spiers’s target group, so their scientific interest could be stimulated and they would become curious to learn about the neuroscientific principles on which the installation builds.