States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness Review

I have no shame in saying that I am a big fan of The Wellcome Trust. I have a lot of admiration for their ability to engage the public with science, and it was actually their editorial team who gave me my first ever paid writing job, an article about cell division for Big Picture. So naturally, the last time I was in London, I had to visit the latest installation at The Wellcome Collection, States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness.

The collection is free to visit, and plays host to a range of scientific exhibitions for the “incurably curious” throughout the year, with their permanent fixtures, Medicine Man and Medicine Now complemented by temporary exhibitions, which can explore anything from meditational practice to forensics, to memory.

Their current temporary exhibition, which will be open until mid-October this year explores different perspectives on the conscious experience. As ever, The Wellcome Collection doesn’t limit their showcase to the scientific viewpoint. The installation pulls together ideas from artists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers alike, colouring scientific evidence and experimentation with pieces of artwork, drawings, audio and video clips, and interactive tasks.

Science and Soul

The exhibition began with an exploration of the soul. Religion, philosophy, science and psychology have all weighed in on the topic, offering viewpoints into whether the soul exists as a separate entity to our physical body, and from where consciousness originates. With a large number of contradictory theories, the “mind-body” problem has yet to be solved.

The first thing I saw when I walked into the exhibition was a quote from the “father of modern western philosophy”, René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy:

“…on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in as far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and as, on the other hand, I possess a distinct idea of body, in as far as it is only an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that I, [that is, my mind, by which I am what I am] am entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it.”

The quotation was juxtaposed with a print by William Blake, depicting a dying man, with his female soul floating above his body. One of the most popular theories is this idea that the body and the soul exist as separate entities, and is a theory embraced by many religions.

Robert_Blair,_The_Grave,_object_7_(Bentley435.6)_The_Soul_hovering_over_the_Body_reluctantly_parting_with_Life
Luigi Schiavonetti. After: William Blake. (Public domain)

Near to this were some photographic prints. At first glance, they were strange and abstract blurs of grey – photographic imperfections. Yet to “thoughtographer” Louis Darget, they captured the radiation of thought. Darget took the photographs by pressing photographic plates against a person’s forehead whilst they thought. The idea that thoughts could be captured on film is called “thoughtography” and Darget was one of the major advocates of this.

Moving on, there were pieces of writing by Francis Crick (one of the scientists credited with discovering the structure of DNA), who, according to The Wellcome Collection, was occupied by studying consciousness until his death, and images of glial cells, the most numerous cells in the nervous system.

nabokov-alphabet-color_b
Image from Marshall McLuhan

A look into synaesthesia came next. The far wall was decorated with Vladimir Nabokov’s Alphabet in Color by Jean Holabird. In his autobiography, Nobokov tells of his “coloured hearing” – a type of synaesthesia. In the piece of artwork illustrating this, letters were coloured in their associated colours:

“The long A of the English Alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood.”

Following on with the same theme was an interactive test designed to “teach” users to experience synaesthesia, by associating certain letters with colours.

Sleep and Awake

There are two sleep disorders which are of particular interest to scientists and psychologists. One of these is sleepwalking or “somnambulism”, which is when a person is physically active, yet remains in a deep sleep. The other is sleep paralysis, which is the opposite: those who experience sleep paralysis are physically “frozen” and incapable of movement, yet are aware of their surroundings. Sleep paralysis is poorly understood, and many who experience it also experience hallucinations, something which unsurprisingly can cause panic. Sleep paralysis has also been linked to alien abduction stories (I’m sure this must have appeared in an episode of The X-Files).

The most notable part of the sleep and awake exhibition was a collection of newspaper cuttings about killers who had claimed to have carried out murders in their sleep. One man was accused of murdering his father after a night of heavy drinking in 2003. He claimed to have no recollection of the murder, but did say he dreamt of an intruder, and had a history of sleepwalking. In 2005, he was cleared of the charge after rigorous testing helped to decide the son had been unaware of his actions. Another man claimed “insanity of sleep” when accused of murder and arson in 1846. This is thought to be the first U.S. case in which sleepwalking was successfully used to escape prosecution for murder. The accused sleepwalker, Albert Tirrell, was found not guilty of murdering a prostitute in Boston and setting fire to a brothel.

My verdict: The exhibition offered an intriguing look into consciousness, in both a philosophical and scientific exploration of “self”. This is one of the strongest facets of The Wellcome Trust’s work: they have a unique ability to blend art and science, to create something more inspiring and more telling than either one could provide alone. States of the Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness was no exception to this. By placing anatomically accurate neuroimaging alongside the “radiation of thought” and philosophical quotations, they’ve given a context to the science they’re exploring, and woven an intricate path through the history of the investigation into consciousness (one which is not yet over).

The exhibition will feature a series of changing installations, and can be visited on  Euston Road, London Tuesday to Sunday until the 16th October 2016.

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