In the 1929, German-American psychologist Wolfgang Kohler made an experiment. He showed the following image to several participants, asking them which of the two shapes was called “Takete” and which one “Baluba”.
Most of the participants associated the name “Takete” with the image on the left and “Baluba” with the one on the right. In 2001 neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and psychologist Edward Hubbard repeated the same experiment, obtaining the same results. The experiment not only showed that the way in which we attribute names to objects is not arbitrary, but also that the physical movements that we make – in this case the way in which we move our mouth in order to create particular sounds, such as ‘Takete’ or ‘Baluba’ – affect the meaning that we attribute to certain objects. This example should make us rethink the role of the body in shaping our perception of the world…can we still separate brain and body / cognition and emotion?
In 1990 a group of neuroscientists in Parma, who were experimenting with a functional magnetic resonance imagining machine (a machine used for showing neuronal activation through changes in blood circulation) made a new discovery. When this discovery happened, the neuroscientists were visualizing the brains of some monkeys. By coincidence – or at least this is what happened, according to the most common version of the story – one of the neuroscientists entered the room where the experiment was taking place and took some food from a bag in order to eat it. Suddenly, looking at the brain imagine in the scanner, the neuroscientists noticed that the part of the monkey’s brain that was firing was the one associated with movement (the sensory motor cortex). Seeing the neuroscientist making movements and eating, therefore, had the same meaning for the monkey as if it were making that movement itself. Vision, intention and action were working at the same time in a dynamic way.
After that, many scientific studies were initiated in attempts to understand what might have been the connection between seeing and making the movement. Furthermore, the existence of the group of neurons associated with such recognition – mirror neurons – was also explored in human beings, and were found to produce surprisingly similar results. In fact, several experiments demonstrated that we also have the same group of neurons in the sensori-motor cortex, and that they fire when we perform an action as well as when we see someone else performing it. Even more crucially, as was demonstrated in the lab of scientist Luc Steels in Brussels, our mirror neurons can also be activated even when we only hear someone talking about performing an action. Therefore not only actual movements, but also virtual movement affect our perception and understanding of the world.
The following is a claim made by Luc Steels:
When a speaker says “Can you give me the black box on the table?”, he wants the hearer to hand over an object (which means to grasp it and move it in the direction of the speaker). To know which object is involved, the speaker wants the hearer to direct his or her attention to a table in the shared context, to identify the objects which can be compared to the prototype of a box, and then focus on the one box which has a black colour. These mental actions are as situated and grounded as motor actions like grasping. From this action-oriented view of language semantics, language understanding amounts to the recognition of the plan intended by the hearer and the utterance is seen as giving hints about which plan is intended.
The previous examples can therefore show us that static and representative ways of understanding how our perception of the world works (referring for instance to words as symbols) are insufficient, as we experience things continuously in movement, and as both our bodies and our brains are continuously involved in a dynamic process of perception. Consequently, elements such as gestures, energies, vibratory and wave motions, need to be considered according to the view that perception is made of both material and immaterial elements, and that it is concerned with processes within the whole body as well as those made by the relation between the body and others. What needs to be developed is an understanding of the way in which our bodies are involved in a process of perception (from the actual and virtual point of view), and the relation between our bodies and our perception of the world (going from a cognitive to an enactive approach, as it has been explained mainly through neurophenomenology and neuroplasticity) also needs to be addressed.
Even when dealing with the brain it will be argued that we need to consider an organ that is in continuous movement, as long as it is part of a living body, and which “takes form and gives form” (Malabou, 2004) in a continuous exchange with the body to which it belongs. Therefore when using the word ‘brain’ I will not be referring to an organ which imposes itself on things, but rather to a part of the body that is able to make qualitative movements whilst experiencing things in the world. Furthermore, and as will be explained also in other posts of this blog, while moving the brain will not only be seen as adapting itself to its environment, but as being able to resist it. This resistance, as we will see in details later on, is referred to in neuroscience as ‘neuroplasticity’.
This notion of plasticity stems from the fact that the brain changes through life in a way that cannot be predicted, and in a manner that is not strictly functional in the sense that it escapes prediction and evolutionary demands. It will be argued here that this versatility affords a new space for an aestheticisation of experience as art.
From this prospective, several artists who are using new media and scientific devices will be analysed in this blog, as they can be seen to be developing a critical and creative approach toward science and technology. In doing so, it will be argued, they are proposing to the audience a new type of experience of both body and brain in continuous openness and transformation, while thereby they are setting up a new type of aesthetics.