While walking west down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Porter Square, I was struck by a magnificent sunset. The autumn light poured a layer of orange onto everything while my feet crunched through crisp leaves that had descended from the sleepy trees. I thought of cycles, as the Fall always reminds of these, and I reflected on my own thoughts. How do the changes in my own brain reflect the larger patterns of the seasons? Is there a relationship between mental states and cosmic change?
As I thought this a billboard came into view interrupting the streaming light from the horizon. With huge blue lettering the billboard banged out a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, "A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions." Yes, I thought, my mind would never be the same as it was before this particular sunset and these particular thoughts. Somewhere in my brain, its physical shape would change, or stretch, recording what was important about this time and place.
It is "mind-stretching" that I would like to describe in this paper; the results of my own experiences of deeply felt wonder, inquiry and understanding. Perhaps the reader will find the descriptions that follow both familiar and provocative. Through sentience, cognition and expression, humans have a unique opportunity to create moments of order and connection out of the chaos of our experience. My effort is toward order and connection via these words.
One connection that interests me is that between art and science. Where do art and science touch? This is a place where individual experience, observation and curiosity, information and rigorous inquiry, theories and expression intersect within a culture. This place is where distinct disciplines find connection at the moment of a question, creating a structure upon which further study might arise.
In this collection I will present a few examples of this kind of meeting. Some examples demonstrate a symbiosis of artistic and scientific efforts, other examples describe educational settings where this kind of link is encouraged, where students are asked to think like artist and scientist simultaneously, where artists engage in inquiry like scientists, and where scientists make daring, expansive risks in theorizing as an artist might (in turn, guiding the direction of research efforts). In addition to these descriptions several questions and thought experiments echo these ideas. This work explores many experiences and expressions, and represents an effort to integrate many thoughts of nature into a cohesive whole.
The emergence of a more vital link between the expressions of art and science has the potential to create a deeper understanding of ourselves as nature, not separate from it. Nature is not limited to the landscape we see out the window. Human culture is also part of nature. This culture includes our ideas, our science and art that reflect our ever-changing understanding of the physical world.
In the broadest sense, all human expression is art. Whether it be religion, science, philosophy, painting or performance, our work reflects how we understand our existence. Contemporary science continues to expand a repertoire of tools, providing a deeper view of our surroundings. This view not only includes the familiar safety of our backyard, but also the sublime experience of a wide view of space and a microscopic view of cells. As images of distant galaxies and DNA seep through the media, so will our way of thinking about ourselves slowly change. The way we think, and what is understood about nature, influences our behavior.
Nature expresses itself in as many ways as there are stars in the sky, flowers in a field, trees in a forest, insects under a log, and conscious individuals - in all cultures, on all continents. Nature is also expressed through every idea, artwork and sciencework. The cultural activities of art and science evolve alongside the evolution of matter and energy and further represent the continuous flow of nature.
A false competition has been created between art and science. These are not mutually exclusive activities. For a deeper understanding of ourselves, it must be realized that often science is an art and art can be scientific. If the conditions are right, art and science are linked and a third, unnamed, category arises. Often this third category exists within fringe communities of generalists that work to understand the vocabularies of many disciplines. I believe there is great value in working at this meeting place.
What are the conditions of such a meeting? A balance is needed between different types of intelligences. An ability to understand the generalities of any collection of information in a discipline which requires a working fluency in the specific vocabulary of that discipline. This in turn enables one to identify patterns. When patterns are identified in nature then comparisons can be made between disparate parts. With these connections new ideas are possible. This new idea is then recorded and often shared with others. The record is designed in an intentional way that addresses the ways in which humans perceive and learn.
The business of an ideal science is to objectively observe the workings of nature and identify the forces at work. This is done through a scientific method of repeatable experiments that periodically prove a given theory, transforming it into fact. These facts can be used to apply the science to develop new technologies. Tools are created to expand our physical senses and gather more refined data; microscopes, telescopes, advanced imagery techniques, mathematical representations, sonar sensing, chemistry, etc. As a scientist learns how nature works, she is also exploring her own personal understanding. The driving force behind sciencework is the desire to discover, know and understand.
Artmaking is a process of creation. Because humans are primarily audio-visual beings, most art is either sound or image. However ideas can be considered artworks as well. In a traditional sense the term "artwork" refers to the quality of craftsmanship applied to the production of an object. A finely crafted chair is often a work of art if its visual beauty and functionality is elegantly balanced. In more contemporary terms, all painting, dancing, singing, performing, sculpting, etc. is called artwork regardless of the quality . The rules of art have been expanded: there are no longer any clear boundaries, instead, the individual artist has become the focus. Regardless of this, during the creative process, whether the craftsman is carving a chair or the 90's art student is sculpting with sound, the creator is involved in an exploration of their subject. They have a unique opportunity to engage in an inquiry of their creative process and the phenomenon with which they work. Within an artwork is an idea that reflects the artists experience. With each expression, an artist collects data in order to learn how to evolve as an artist and thinker. The driving force behind artwork is the desire to discover, know and understand.
While recently visiting my grandmother in a small town in upstate New York, I had the opportunity to watch quite a bit of television. On a news program one evening, an "authority" in the field of psychology was being interviewed concerning his ideas about what was missing in the lives of Americans. His "studies had shown" that we are missing a sense of enchantment with the world, and our dependence on scientific explanations has caused us to be disengaged, and thus harmful, unhealthy members of planet earth. In the news program he suggested that people should not look for answers. We should accept not knowing and maintain the mysteries of life. While I agree that some of us are harmful and unhealthy, I was troubled by the thought that this "expert opinion" filters through to the average American citizen as a justification for not questioning, not looking, and not thinking independently. This justification ignores what I think is our inherent desire for answers and understanding. A curiosity that is evident when we are children. This particular expert's, perhaps unintentional, encouragement of the "why-ask-why-drink-bud-dry " culture robs individuals of the opportunity to be vital, connected and creative members of society. I think this is not only dangerous but uninspired. This "expert opinion" starkly contrasts with my own experience.
As a child, on one of the many midnight road trips my family took to and from my grandmother's house, I remember being curled up in a ball with pillows and blankets, low in the back seat, staring straight up through the window into the sky for hours. While this early romance with the nightsky waned during adolescence it returned recently as an interest in astronomy. Since, I have tried to teach myself how to use star guides and read the constellations throughout the year.
One recent summer, while working in a place far from city lights, I spent a night outdoors with a star guide and a telescope looking for the Sagittarius constellation. I had learned that this constellation points to the central bulge of the Milky Way. This central bulge is the apparent center of our galaxy. The fuzzy, white band of stars that spans the sky are other sun-filled arms of our Milky Way Galaxy that exist between earth and its center. The Sagittarius Constellation is a landmark, or skymark, that helps us find our way. The dots of light that make up the form of Sagittarius outline an archer pointing his arrow towards the central bulge. The central bulge is not visibly obvious, and one needs a way of knowing where to look for it along the Milky Way band. I used my sky charts to find the constellation and sat staring at this region of the sky for many minutes. Upon finding Sagittarius and the central bulge, I was dizzy with awe and overwhelmed by a sense of connection with my surroundings as far away as I could imagine. With this knowledge, I was able to experience more than the visual beauty of the night sky. I read the night sky as a map, placing myself, for a moment, in a cosmic context. I was able to experience the vastness of nature and at the same time a sense of connection with it. With this new knowledge my experience of the night sky was enhanced. The childlike romance is not replaced or explained away by an insensitive science but, rather, unfolds into a richer, enchanted experience of nature.
When the mind is curious, it is open
to change. The thinker is free to be uncertain, to go somewhere new, to create
new physical connections between neurons. Think of a time when you were overwhelmed
by wonder, enchanted by the workings of the world. Remember your childhood curiosities;
why is the sky blue? how do birds fly? how do things grow? As a child, you looked
at every movement, every face, every tiny thing with awe and hunger. You needed
to know like you needed to eat. Your brain came into the world built for taking
in information and integrating it into a system used for gathering more information.
You learned language, to walk, to use your small fingers to tie shoes and draw
pictures, all within a few years.
Children learn with incredible speed
and agility in order to get around the world on their own. The effort to become
independent is fierce. Now, think about the ways in which curiosity, question-asking
and answer-seeking enhances our chances for survival and enrich our lives. Ideas
and behavior evolve in a continually changing environment. Humans have the ability
to learn and influence behavior to survive these changes.
Perhaps if we practice looking closely and asking questions about the patterns and symbiotic relationships of nature we will appreciate its wonderful complexity and, in turn, gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. While we live with the persistent conflict between destructive and creative forces, we each have the opportunity to be independent thinkers, asking our own questions and finding answers through our own private and communal experience. Maintaining child-like curiosity ensures life-long learning. The nature of existence is the persistence of continual growth, change and expression. As we age, we learn, create memories and have the rare opportunity to express our thoughts and understandings to others.
Coral found on the beach comes in a wonderful variety of shapes, sizes and textures. Yet there are similarities and patterns that tell us that these things are corals, not sea shells or bottle caps. Over time, nature changes slightly, slowly and continuously, expressing itself in different, yet related forms. These forms are reminders of lives lived, clues to past ecosystems. As sentient and analytical beings, we group these objects by how similar they are to each other. We pull order from these groupings and use this information for our own survival purposes. The physical universe is not a soupy mess but a complex array of interrelated things. Some things remain long after their creation, like memories that can be accessed and incorporated into new forms. How are ideas like these physical forms? Do ideas, artworks and scienceworks take forms in similar ways, like corals do?
To begin, my use of the terms expression and memory needs to be clarified. I use both terms with the broadest meaning. An expression is a representation or revelation; the showing, manifestation or revealing of something using symbols or formulas. Expression in terms of natural forms is the effect of genes and evolution. It is the product of an interaction between time, space, and matter; the result of the formation or the manifestation of energy. An expression has a particular shape, the result of a patterned organization of parts.
A memory is that which retains or revives impressions, the recollection or recognition of previous experience or expression. It is the having, or keeping, in the mind, or, it is the external storage of information through the use of symbolic language which, in turn, enables more complex interaction and expression. A memory is a particular pattern of synaptic activity in the brain. A piece of coral, a butterfly, a poem or an idea are expressions that behave as memories inspiring future expressions.
Human expression, whether one is a baker, a painter, an inventor, or a philosopher, becomes cultural memory. With metaphors, symbols and formulas a human mind may reorganize what information is known into something else; a new expression. From Paleolithic cave paintings to contemporary molecular sculpture, symbols are used to represent our experience in the world in an attempt to better understand ourselves and to communicate this understanding. The scope and reach of what is represented determines the influence and power of the expression. Expressions become memories that in turn become the information and stimuli that influence other expressions. For that matter, any species or idea created at a given time has the potential to influence evolutionary descendants from that point forward. In this way, what is produced in the sciences and the arts can often serve the same purpose; as an evolutionary step in the lineage of natural expression.
When a new species is formed, or a general theory is created by connecting specific information gathered in different disciplines a natural evolutionary system of change occurs. In the same way, when an artwork is expressed, an idea is thought, or something new is learned, the physical shape of the art medium or the neuronal connections in the brain is changing. The form of these expressions at the time of the change, and how these forms remain after the moment of experience as memories is what I would like to describe. How are human expressions in science and in art similar to each other and, in turn, how are these expressions like the speciation that occurs in nature through the processes of evolution?
Both sciencework and artwork are human expressions; once expressed they become records of our lives in interaction with our environment - stored records of information.
What are considered the boundaries of artwork and acceptable science are continually changing and expanding. The work of artist Agnes Denes and biologists Lynn Margulis and Karlene V. Schwartz illustrates the possibilities where these boundaries are allowed to breathe and expand. In my view, the work of these people, one coming out of the traditions of visual art, the others from the scientific theories of evolution, taxonomy and biology, create forms that are similar in shape. These works reflect our interactions with nature and exist as external memories in the form of written words.
The work of Denes and Margulis/Schwartz almost touch each other in similarity; both use a reductionist approach to explain the nature of life. Yet Denes is an artist and Margulis/Schwartz are scientists. The similarity is significant and reveals what is fundamentally important about expression. It is not whether something is categorized as science or art, but whether the expression reflects the particularities of deeply felt curiosity while also connecting to a larger picture. Both Denes and Margulis/Schwartz are able to use non-technical language to communicate their thoughts so that almost all those that can read will have access to the ideas. Their ideas are not only for the few who understand the complex specialized languages used within the contemporary visual artworld or scientific institutions. These works take the reader on a comprehensive tour through knowledge about the physical world providing the tools for a more enhanced view that remains after the actual reading.
The 1989 work Book of Dust, by living artist Agnes Denes, can be described as a collection of formulas, recipes and lists of different kinds of dust. In her own words:
"Book of Dust is an attempt at summing up, gaining, if not an ultimate view, a clearer perspective. It is hoped that from this seed, further thoughts may grow. Dust is both a metaphor and the connecting thread, which strings together facts and phenomena, to be held still for a moment of contemplation and scrutiny... This book presents information and events that are in a constant state of flux while they reflect underlying processes whose transformation is eternal and predetermined. This book is a glimpse of reality and its dynamics shown through facts, numbers and formulas." (Denes, pg. 5)
And, the book is just that - over 100 pages of descriptions of different kinds of dust at every known scale. The names of some of the chapters suggest the content: Moon Dust, Human Dust, Poisonous Dusts, Light, Wind, Explosive Dusts, Epidemics, Cosmic Dust, etc. This is an artwork in the form of a book. Very detailed ideas are expressed through the use of written word with a few black and white images and diagrams. With the presentation of this detailed information in a context designed by the artist, the reader or listener has the opportunity to include these details in their own thinking and experiences, thus creating their own meaning. It is via this naming, detailing and connecting of seemingly disparate phenomenon that a richer experience of nature can emerge. For me it is an inspirational work in its attention to detail and clear, rigorous presentation of information.
Another inspirational work, is the book entitled Five Kingdoms; An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth (second Edition) by Lynn Margulis and Karlene V. Schwartz. This book published in 1987 documents all the known Phyla to date. From the cover:
"An extraordinary, all-inclusive catalog of the world's living diversity, This unprecedented guide documents the major divisions, or phyla, of nature's five great kingdoms: Prokaryotae (bacteria), Protoctista (algae, protozoans, and other aquatic and parasitic organism), Fungi (mushrooms, molds, and lichens), Animalia (animals with and without backbones), and Plantae (mosses, ferns and cone-bearing and flowering plants). Generously illustrated and remarkably easy to follow, it not only allows readers to sample the full range of life forms inhabiting our planet but to familiarize themselves with the taxonomic theories by which all organisms' origins and distinctive characteristics are traced and classified."
This collection of data and description is a feat of knowledge. The authors are able to combine rigorous specialized detail with easily understood explanations that enable the reader to connect the information to what they already know. For example, the first paragraph in the Prokaryotae chapter begins;
"Kingdom Prokaryotae comprises all the bacteria. Small though they are, bacteria are crucial to health, agriculture, forestry and the very existence of the air we breathe... Every spoonful of garden soil contains some 10 10 bacteria; a small scraping of film from your gums might reveal about 109 bacteria per square centimeter of film - the total number in your mouth is greater than the number of people who have ever lived. Bacteria make up a significant percentage of the dry weight of all animals." (pg. 25)
Accompanying each phyla description are images of several kinds. Photographs and drawings of example organisms, as well as a pictographic scene indicating the typical habitat where the organisms are found. The scale of the images is plainly stated near each picture with symbols that indicate the imaging tool (naked eye, hand lens, light microscope, or electron microscope).
The authors also describe the nature of the science upon which the book depends. They describe the ever-shifting categories and the evolution of thought that has guided taxonomy. They view science as a creative medium of change.
"We present here an internally consistent, complete classification system, one that is the most valid and up-to-date possible given the varying, fragmented, and often inconsistent literature from which our information is drawn." (pg. 3)
Because this work is the "rarest of intellectual treasures -something truly original and useful" (Gould, pg. ix) I consider it to be an artistic expression of the most meaningful sort. It is a vehicle for looking deeply into things and connects details to a general theory of life enabling a viewer to see things in a new way. Five Kingdoms shares this with Denes' Book of Dust which is also a taxonomy of sorts. In the Five Kingdoms Foreword Stephan Jay Gould writes:
"Some people dismiss taxonomies and their revisions as mere exercises in abstract ordering - a kind of glorified stamp collecting of no scientific merit and fit only for small minds who need to categorize their results. No view could be more false and more inappropriately arrogant. Taxonomies are reflections of human thought; they express our most fundamental concepts about the objects of our universe. Each taxonomy is a theory about the creatures that it classifies." (pg. x)
These works exist at the boundary between art and science. Both these expressions by these artists/scientists remain with us after the original curiosities, the years of research, and the additional years of organizing, writing and clarifying. They are records of the authors' thoughts, questions, and understandings. These books sit on a shelf in my studio next to a collection of corals and are referred to frequently for inspiration and information. I read them like maps.
Every organism is a living map of time and interaction in nature. Every artwork and Sciencework is a physical record of memories, ideas and information. They are also maps of the human brain.
Anything that records an interaction, the movement of one thing through another, can be considered a map. The neuronal connections that represent the growth and learning one has experienced throughout one's life, a series of stroboscopic photographs of a milk drop falling through air, the path of ones footsteps through a park, each is a map of interaction. As the cut marks of a figure skater's path through the ice store information about the speed, direction and weight of the body, a map stores information about its creator. Maps are generalized representations of our understanding of nature.
Maps are the external storage of memories. These external databases enable an organism to compare past and distant events with present ones. In the case of land maps, users can locate where they are now, where they have been and where they might want to go. Brain maps can be images of the physical structures of the brain or they can reflect the more complicated interconnections of an individual brain's neuronal pathways.
An example of a brain map is the MRI image on the cover page of this paper. An MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Image, is the result of a technique that uses a powerful magnet to cause the magnetic fields of each hydrogen atom in organic tissue to uniformly align themselves in the same north-south polar orientation. After this orientation is disrupted by radio waves, the radio signals are measured as the atoms relax back to the original north-south orientation. This measurement is digitally translated into an image of varying degrees of light density creating a black and white image of the structures of the subject.
An organism can increase its chance for survival if it has a way of accurately storing information about its environment. The human brain not only has the ability to store memories within the confines of the skull but it can also direct the body to create external objects, libraries, governments, cultures, and behaviors that represent valuable information.
Maps are most useful when they are the result of averaging the contents of many databases into one. A single database is the result of one approach, question, or idea. Which in turn originates from an individual or a small group of individuals.
Communities are most useful when they are structured in such a way that enables them to evolve according to each new generation of members. The structure should not impede upon open exchange and individualism. Often this open exchange is abused and some control others. This is a difficult balance. A shortage of culturally agreed upon control allows abuses. Too much control retards learning and growth.
At times, a particular kind of equilibrium emerges within a collection of individuals that allows for vital cultural expression, or, a more useful map to guide future journeys.
A piece of coral we might pick up at the beach is a record of an organism interacting with the world. These complexly patterned souvenirs of coral forms are otherwise known as flower animals, Coelenterate Anthozoa scleractina, or members of the Cnidaria phylum. These mementos are actually corallites, left-over skeletal remains separated from larger colonies made of living coral.
Corals are colonies of individual organisms. These organisms, called polyps, secrete calcium carbonate in intricate patterns that serve as shelters, or exoskeletons, for the delicate polyps. A coral colony organism is the result of the combined interaction of individual polyps, the calcium carbonate shelters they excrete, the symbiotic algae upon which they depend for nutrients and the conditions of the water environment within which they live. These polyps excrete calcium carbonate in a variety of patterns that reflect the differences between each species and the environmental conditions at the time the exoskeleton is made.
The creation of a corallite depends on many things. Through both asexual and sexual reproduction, coral has evolved to both mix the genetic information of parents and also to clone itself, enabling genetically successful corals to reproduce and spread over a larger area. The diversity of a coral region is determined by an optimum level of disturbance. Storms, predators and disease interact with a growing population, creating an equilibrium that enables some colonies to survive up to 700 years.
The construction of a particular coral colony is determined by the composition of the surrounding salt water and the wave action which takes away or brings prey and removes sediment from the coral skeleton. The motion of the tides, influenced by the daily movements of the earth and moon, can also determine the patterns of these skeletons. For example, some corals exhibit very fine external ridges of calcium carbonate; each ridge representing a tidal dayÕs growth.
The corallite on the beach is a record of the coral organismÕs life in collaboration with its environment. The patterns created by these interactions are reflected in these corallite forms. These records are like the memories created in a human brain.
The complex organization and shape of the brain is determined by the way it grows and by the structure of each neuron. Throughout our lives our own memories are created as the cells in our bodies and brains develop changes in their shapes, patterns of organization and connections with each other that reflect what we experience and remember.
The brain has evolved to get a maximum number of neurons and neuronal connections into a limited space. A developing human embryo contains an outer layer of cells, known as the ectoderm, that folds in to create the neural tube. This tube develops into the spinal cord and brain. The remaining ectoderm cells continue on to become the skin of the organism.
All multicellular organisms, including humans, are comprised of a community of eukaryotic cells (with a true nucleus). Some of these cells are neurons. Neurons conduct information throughout the body in the form of electrochemical impulses between cells.
Neurons communicate with other neurons via synapses. A synapse is the location along the axon of a neuron where it almost touches another neuron. Here, resulting from a build-up of electric potential, neurotransmitters (chemicals particular to the neurons involved) are released into a tiny space between the neurons and incite the receiving neuron to respond, perpetuating the movement of information. If a neuron is often in communication with another cell this connection is strengthened and more likely to fire. If they rarely communicate, the connection can atrophy and disappear.
As an organism lives, different connections between neurons are enhanced or diminished depending on experience. The content and intensity of mental impressions cause different patterns of neuronal activity.
This ability for neurons to communicate and influence each other transduces sensory information into thoughts, ideas, and behavior. While the shapes and behavior of neuronal structures reflect the organismÕs inherent tendencies, these shapes and behaviors may also change according to the organism's daily interaction with nature. These interactions are stored as memories and are reflected in what we learn.
Learning is the body and brainÕs growth over time as an organism interacts with its surroundings. Our given form, the basic material we were born with, is continually creating new forms that emerge from the colony of individual cells that is our brain and body. These forms are patterns of organization, some of which reach our conscious awareness as ideas. Ideas are the forms created at the boundary between each of us and the world. Ideas are like the living coral organismÕs creation of its skeletal shelter. Memory is like the corallite on the beach; a record of the life of the organism and its interaction with its environment.
When you absorb new information, including the memories of others, it influences your learning, your developing ideas. The form of your ideas may change as you read this. How is this change recorded in your memories, the shape of your expressions and the cellular structures of your body and brain? What are the conditions with which you are the most creative, expressive, observant, analytical?
The human community continually creates mental forms as the processes of Gene-Culture coevolution work to shape nature. At some point in the evolutionary past, a brain evolved that was able to create metaphors for understanding, integrate knowledge and produce external objects that represent meaning. The first human artists had these abilities. Works of art are the creative products of nature, driven by an evolutionary process.
According to the entomologist, sociobiologist and author, Edward O. Wilson, the process of Gene-Culture Coevolution is as follows:
The human species undergoes continual change and growth as individual parts periodically exhibit the edge of that change in a unique form. Some of these forms integrate the knowledge of many disciplines into a useful map. There is greater survival advantage for maps that promote collective as well as individual interests. A new form reflects the shapes of its origins and includes the shapes of something outside itself.
Glass rope sponges are some of the most primitive of multi-cellular organisms. Living glass rope sponges attach themselves to the ocean floor by secreting glass ropes of silica. By converting silica from the environment into living connections to their surroundings, these organisms confuse the boundaries between organic and in organic matter.
The glass harmonica instrument was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. It is a series of tuned glass bowls pierced in the center, strung vertically on a wire spindle and rotated at an even speed. Music is played with these bowls by placing wet fingers to the rim of the rotating glass cups emitting sounds dependent upon the players actions.
Digital super-highways are a global network of glass stretched micro-thin as optical fibers for the transmission of computer data, television signals, fax messages, and telephone calls in the form of digitized laser light information.
Nature is a continuous transformation of energy, from galactic motion to starlight to tree to seasonal cycles to human to idea. Though genes and culture are intimately linked the rate at which they each evolve is different. Though culture changes very quickly it is limited by the inherent abilities of brains. The interaction between individual brains and cultural information is a dynamic system of transformation and change. This continuous system moves with wave-like patterns.
A wave is a pattern in nature that repeats itself.
A wave is energy moving through a medium.
A wave is the interaction between a disruptive force and a restorative force.
A wave is a circle moving through time and space.
Learning is the process of creating new synapses in particular areas of the brain and then integrating these new patterns with other areas. It is a process of moving from recording special data to creating general metaphors.
Longterm learning requires that the brain fluctuate between a generalist and a specialist system of thinking.
Often within the same conversation Leonardo da Vinci is both commended and criticized for being a Renaissance Man and unfocused, fractured and unpublished. The seeds of his creativity are imbedded in his dissatisfaction with specializing in any one subject for too long. His general interest in so many topics enabled him to make connections between disparate parts which, in turn, informed his artwork, engineering and research. His brain balanced its ability to think specifically and generally, to study and observe the details of natural phenomena and then to use these observations to answer other questions.
It is important to note that Leonardo considered his observations and theories of nature in service to his painting. For Leonardo, his painting was "a form of knowledge in the first order"(Pedretti, 1997). He believed painting was the universal language of his time. His scientific investigations and engineering experiments were in service of his understanding of nature in order to model it. In this way the art drove the science and the science enhanced the art.
"His art works were not only an attempt to reflect reality but also a search for the laws of nature, science and proportion to be handed down to posterity." (Letze, 1997)
I believe that he is now a particularly popular icon of science and art because we desire a model for stretching boundaries and bringing together the complex and disconnected information that surrounds modern life. In order to better face our daunting future, humans will need to learn how to balance and integrate the information produced from specialized study and the process of creating the general understanding needed to influence behavior. Intuitively this is known, though we have not integrated this knowledge into our actions. This effort has emerged periodically throughout history.
Our human ancestors probably lived without these categories of science and art. Their knowledge of nature enabled their survival and this knowledge was perhaps shared via artistic expressions. The gymnasiums and libraries of Alexandrian times were modeled around the idea of interdisciplinary education. These male students were immersed in a study of music, athletics, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. And, during the economically secure Western Renaissance the education of the privileged was based in this interdisciplinary approach. Though not from privileged means, Leonardo created his own interdisciplinary education based on his experience. He writes in his notebook:
"Many will think that they can with reason blame me, alleging that my proofs are contrary to the authority of certain men held in great reverence by their inexperienced judgments, not considering that my works are the issue of simple and plain experience which is the true mistress..." (Richter, pg. 1)
More recently, the artist, author and educator, L. Moholy-Nagy, wrote in the late 40's about the importance of integrating our individual felt experience of existence with technology:
"The problem of our generation is to bring the intellectual and emotional, the social and technological components into balanced play; to learn to see and feel them in relationship. Without this interrelatedness there remains only the disjunctive technical skill of handling human affairs, a rigidity stifling biological and social impulses; a memorized, not a lived life." (Moholy-Nagy, pg. 12)
Moholy-Nagy was a pioneer promoting this kind of integration while he taught in an American version of the Bauhaus at the Institute of Design in Chicago. In the post-war industrial boom, the exploration of new technologies and materials by Moholy-Nagy was of historic importance where contemporary art is concerned (ie, the exploration and development of new media and new genres). He pushed his students to be aware of the science of their time:
"He must have conscious source material, sound scientific outlook though not necessarily a method... Although this 'research work' of the artist is rarely as systematic as that of the scientist they both may deal with the whole of life, in terms of relationships, not of details. In fact, the artist today does so more consistently than the scientist, because with each of his works he faces the problem of the interrelated whole while only a few theoretical scientists are allowed this 'luxury' of total vision." (Moholy-Nagy, pg. 31)
The question now has changed. Specialized knowledge has created new advances in understanding the workings of the brain, the biological basis of emotion, thought and culture and community ecology. These are advances in content and information rather than applied technology. The latest technological advances, global communications networks, are important because they transfer yet more information. How does this shift in priority affect the way in which we integrate knowledge and balance specialized knowledge with individual experience and general understanding? A single individual is no longer able to hold enough information from all the areas of contemporary knowledge to be a successful and influential Renaissance Person today. Both specialists and generalists must recognize the usefulness of a symbiotic relationship. How will we learn to shape this new relationship?
Vital learning depends on a dynamic equilibrium between specialized inquiry and the context dependent integration of this information with metaphor and analogy within a supportive environment of experience and interaction. Again, Moholy-Nagy:
"To achieve this integrated state there is need for a well-balanced social organization and an appropriate education; an education for personal growth and not a training in skills for the purpose of profit; a social organization in which everyone is utilized to his highest capacity." (Moholy-Nagy, pg. 11)
Through my own experiences as a student at the Massachusetts College of Art's Studio for Interrelated Media(SIM), and as a facilitator for the Shadow Show (an original production at Graham and Parks Alternative Grade School), Waves (a series of meetings with Carita Gardiner discussing and observing the subject of waves), and Nature's Time (a series of meetings with other artists discussing and observing the subject of time), I have come to strongly believe in the possibilities in learning and creativity where an interdisciplinary meeting of art and science occurs.
As a student in SIM, I was encouraged to follow the often uncertain path of my ideas and questions unencumbered by the limitations of any one medium. Though I came to art-making from a traditional background of drawing, painting and sculpture, I soon realized I was not necessarily bound by these disciplines and could ask any question in any form. I experimented with performance, production, and even cooking dinner for 50 people as an artwork. My teachers and fellow students encouraged me to release my dependence on any one medium and concentrate on the content of my efforts.
The essence of this kind of freedom is described in a poem by Harris Barron, the founder of SIM and the main author of its philosophy:Pedagogy
While a student in SIM I learned the value of directing my own process of discovery and art-making. This education was dependent on the community based environment that is built into the structure of SIM and the multi-media facilities that are provided. The students and faculty spend many hours every week together realizing projects. The projects range from performance events, fundraising, community outreach, networking with other organizations and SIM alumni, and attention to each students individual thoughts and expressions. Also important to the success of SIM is its nature as a place without categories. Students are free to create there own without fitting into those already in use by the structure of society or that of the artworld. This freedom mixed with a sense of community encourages the growth of a unique individual along with a sense of connection to a larger organism. From an early draft of Barron's introduction to SIM, he begins:
"Shared experience creates community. It promotes the bonding required for deeper understanding and communication..." (Barron, 1982)
These words, painted on the wall of the Longwood Theater stage that we used until Mass Art vacated the building in 1990, have guided me since I first read them. Among the many projects I participated in while in SIM, two stand out; The SIM Dinner and The Big SIM Show.
The SIM Dinner was a full course meal prepared for the SIM community as a surprise and as an artwork. With three other fellow students, I wanted to reaffirm the community aspect of our department while also highlighting the physical space we shared. With food, music and conversation we didn't just create a party but a live event that inspired exchange and awareness of our time together.
The Big SIM Show was a two week alumni retrospective dedicated to the retirement of Harris Barron and to SIM itself. While an undergraduate, with the help of several others, I organized a two week artwork festival that brought together twenty years of alumni and students of SIM. With this event, we wanted to demonstrate the possibilities inherent in the departmentÕs philosophy, ŌShared experience creates communityĶ. This extensive exhibition of multimedia artwork (e.g., performance, music, theater, workshops, 2D, 3D, computer art, video, etc.) by over 50 artists from all over the country attracted a diverse audience. This audience was provided with an environment where they could meet people with very different interests, share ideas, and create communication networks. Again, like the dinner, the effort was to bring together many people to invigorate a community.
These two events were the beginning of my realization that what I was interested in was the act of bringing together or making connections. This interest remains evident in my current artwork as I continually attempt to bring together disparate disciplines and look for connections in large scale patterns in nature. At the time, I wanted to know how to bring people together outside the safety of SIM.
After graduating from SIM, I went on to teach 5th and 6th grade at the Graham and Parks Alternative Grade School in Cambridge, MA. The high point of this experience was The Shadow Show. After two years with the same 16 kids studying shadows from many viewpoints, we created a theater event that shared our discoveries. As a teaching assistant, I collaborated with two team-teachers, and with our students, to design and implement projects that explored the subject of shadows. We began with a question: What can oneÕs shadow on the earth tell us about the seasons and how the earth and sun relate to each other? We spent eight months observing shadow lengths at different times of the day; collecting, analyzing and comparing data; creating drawings, maps and models; asking more questions; discussing early explorersÕ use of shadows in finding true north; considering the effects the explorers had on the people and places they explored; using computer tools; and asking still more questions. I used many drawing, word, and experiential activities to interconnect math, navigational history, physics, seasonal change, social history, and astronomy. The class was transformed into a scientific laboratory and, simultaneously, a multi-media performance space.
The climactic event of our shadow experience was a stage performance, The Shadow Show, that dramatized our findings and interpretations. From each students strengths and interests, I tried to provide them with as many options as possible for their presentations. Written, choreographed, and performed by the students, it began with a documentary video of our classroom lab, followed by the recitation of original choral poems, re-enactments of classroom discourse, and dramatizations of historical events. Despite all that was involved, we didnÕt lose sight of the scientific subject of our studies. The show completed the cycle of learning that began with the first question in September. The Shadow Show demonstrated our integrated study of science and further solidified each studentÕs learning by allowing all to share their thoughts in both verbal and non-verbal ways. This unification of science, history, and art produced understanding with deeply positive effects.
After The Shadow Show, the evolution of my interests continued and began to focus more on the content of a particular inquiry. I came to think that it is the content of an enterprise that brings people together - shared inquiry and shared concerns. With the pedagogy of Professor Eleanor Duckworth in mind (Harvard Graduate School of Education), I embarked on two projects that I saw both as educational research and artworks; Waves, a series of meetings with Carita Gardiner discussing and observing the subject of waves, and Nature's Time, a series of meetings with other artists discussing and observing the subject of time.
Waves was five week experiential study of waves with Carita Gardiner, a fellow student and now an English teacher in Michigan. We went to the beach, reviewed educational software that models the physics of wave behavior, sat in front of a wave tank in Boston's Science Museum, and sometimes just talked about our questions related to waves, tidal change and the earth/moon system. During this time I had the opportunity to share my own excitement about wave behavior and create connections with someone else. What remains with me about this experience is Carita's long-lasting awareness of waves. She came to the project without having done a study of this kind before and hadn't thought much about waves at all. By the end, when she thought of waves she thought of large-scale interconnections in nature. Even now, she periodically sends me thoughts and photos of ocean waves. If she discovered anything, she discovered how to bring together her own thoughts about nature:
"My biggest discovery in this work, one that will certainly affect how I teach and learn, is that I need a context, even when I don't know what the context is... when Nita started talking about tides, I thought, 'that's great that she's interested in that, too, but I only bargained for learning about waves.'... I thought that learning about the moon and tides was extra for our work on waves... (Now) I really believe that there is no way to talk about what's pushing the waves without thinking about what breaks them up, what confuses them, how they move, how the Earth moves, how the moon moves, etc. It's all one system." (Gardiner, 1994)
The work with Carita was satisfying and fun. It encouraged me to try it again. With Nature's Time the structure was similar, a series of weekly meetings in different places to discuss a single topic, but this project was with four artists. I specifically invited exclusively artists because they each had individually voiced their interest in time on separate occasions and I wanted to see if we could bring science issues into our discussions without the presence of a scientist. For me this was an effort to bring our understanding of time to richer level of complexity grounded in our physical experience.
There were many wonderful and challenging moments of our time together. I learned a great deal about the limitations of this approach but also about the possibilities. During the last meeting two of the group were able to notice extremely subtle details illuminated by strobe lighting at the MIT Strobe Lab. I believe the discussions we had had the weeks leading up to this visit enabled them to see more clearly the movement of water under the strobe. On another day, one participant announced that the focus of her artwork had changed because of our time group. And yet in another session we created a wonderful metaphor for understanding an instant of time during a walk through the Fenway.
For me, these ways of learning are ideal. SIM, The Shadow Show, Waves, and Nature's Time embody the fuzzy lines between scientific discovery, artistic expression, and learning. The main aspects of these learning environment include: consistent encouragement to make critical connections among different areas of study; readiness for unconventional methods of observing, learning and expressing; and opportunity for students to come to their own understanding of a subject through conversation, argument, and presentation. In these experiences, art and science successfully coexisted. There are wonderful possibilities where a metaphorical, generalist mode of thought is combined with an empirical, methodical, information driven inquiry of a question. Vital learning is dependent upon an interdisciplinary approach where participants create their own questions and understandings, dependent upon learning styles and interests. It is this kind of environment that I wish to explore, develop and recreate.
Forms in nature are complex and widely diverse. Each living being is shaped according to its particular niche and the particular tools it uses to survive there. From the elegant curves of a nautilus shell to the cubed planes of a crystal, matter and energy is expressed in an overwhelming number of different ways. With this in mind, the question that provided the inspiration for this paper and its visual and participatory counterpart at the Tufts University Galleries in February of 1997, has been - how do ideas, that are the result of a dynamic system of organized interactions between neurons, take form? What is the form of thought?
In the Thoughtform exhibit, visitors entered the gallery and were first met with a large-scale zerox print of a MRI image of my brain. Nearby was collection of small (4" x 6") shelves on a dark gray wall. On these shelves were forms of coral and clay. The clay forms were placed on the shelves by visitors to the gallery who were invited to shape a small piece of bone colored clay as they viewed the exhibit. The accompanying text describes how coral is formed and how the brain constructs memories on the cellular level (see chapter 4). Magnifying glasses were provided in order to get a closer look at the coral and clay forms. The presentation suggested that there are important similarities between these forms. They are both Thoughtforms.
On the wall adjoining the coral wall were several printouts of graphs that are similar in appearance yet slightly different upon closer observation. These are electroencephalograms(EEGs) of participants' brain wave activity. By appointment, visitors were asked to engage in an experiment that measured the electrical activity of the frontal lobe of the brain. The resulting graphs are then posted on the wall in order to compare the similarities and differences. The EEG is yet another form that thought may take.
The electroencephalograph, EEG, is a device that records the electrical effects of putting electrodes on the scalp. The output of these electrodes is amplified and converted into graphs that communicate information about the different patterns created by a brain.
Hans Berger, the creator of electroencephalogram technology in the early 1900's, was inspired to develop a way of understanding the physical nature of thought by a telepathic episode he shared with his sister. While he was in war as a young soldier, Berger was seriously injured. His family was alerted to the event by his sister who experienced the knowledge around the moment of the accident. Always fascinated by this experience, he explored and invented a way to approach measuring the activity of the mind.
When electrodes are placed on the forehead, they measure the activity of the frontal lobe of the outer-most layers of the brain, the cerebral cortex. These recordings measure the generalized electrical activity of the frontal lobe. In Thoughtforms, only two electrodes were used on a single channel so there is no differentiation between the right and left hemisphere, though this is possible with more electrodes and more channels of recording space. In invasive procedures, pin electrodes can be placed deep within the brain in order to measure more specifically chosen locations. For many patients, EEG technology is used to locate areas in the brain that cause life threatening seizures.
In the Thoughtform EEG Experiment, there were five trials. In each trial, the EEG was recorded for 60 seconds after the participant was engaged in the following tasks;
When an organism experiences its environment the brain's processes of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and emotional response transduce external information in into complex electrical activity. In addition to stimuli-dependent activity a brain also exhibits rhythmic electrical activity that does not temporally correspond with external stimuli but rather reflects the internally-driven, self-monitoring processes of the brain. All thought and behavior is the result of the interaction between internally-driven and stimuli-dependent brain activity. This interaction moves in wave patterns that represents the information of each thought and action.
This experiment provided a unique opportunity for me to share time with each participant and observe the patterns of their minds as they shared a series of moments with me.
One of the many controversies in the study of the brain and cognition is the question of 'binding'. There are many regular rhythms in the different areas of the brain that become synchronized when these areas respond to the same stimuli. How are the workings of so many individual and distant neurons coordinated into a single idea or perception in a given moment?
In the outer layers of the brains cortex, there is a subpopulation of excitatory pyramidal cells that are widely connected to other neurons both near and far in the brain. These particular cells react to stimuli with rhythmic bursts of firing at 30 to 60 times per second. With this rhythmic bursting they propagate a rhythm to other neurons.
In addition to this mechanism, another system exists in which interneurons (neurons that inhibit the firing of other neurons) respond to stimuli by vibrating at 40 hertz - a rate determined by how long it takes currents flowing between interneurons to decay. Other cells linked to these interneurons respond by also oscillating at 40 hertz.
According to a computer model designed by Roger Traub, when the excitatory neurons and the interneurons are combined the pyramidal neurons will also fire at 40 hertz even when they are at great distances from each other. This is due to the activity of the interneurons which fire two rapid spikes to make up for the distance. The time between the rapid spikes is the time it takes for a nerve impulse to travel form one group of neurons to the next, which in turn keep the two groups in step.
Perception, ideas, questions, observations and fantasies are possible because the brain focuses many parts together to create the present moment.
Separated heart cells beat at different rates; when many cells are put together in a group all these different beats are averaged and become one heartbeat. Heartbeat is the result of a colonization of parts.
After you read this, take a moment and feel the pulse of your heartbeat. Place the palm of your hand on the skin of your chest near the middle just to the left of your sternum. Or place the pointer and middle fingers on the palm side of your wrist just under your thumb. Or look straight ahead and place two fingers behind your jawbone on the same vertical as your eye. With any of these methods, give yourself a few moments to settle so that you are quiet enough to feel the pulse.
Think of the other pulses that surround you. What sounds do you hear? Is there electrical activity you can hear? When will you sleep again? When will the earth turn towards its next sunrise? Where are you now in the yearly calendar? How many years since your birth? What are the rhythms of your daily routine? Do you climb the same number of stairs? Take the same bus? Celebrate certain traditions? When does your city pickup your garbage? When do you get paid? Will you notice the next lunar eclipse? Are you in a productive phase of your life now? a peaceful phase? a fast-paced time? a time of deep thought and learning? When will you next stroll through crisp autumn leaves?
You are synchronized to a complex symphony of life made up of individual parts that continually evolve. Every footstep you take is a note. You are part of a larger pulse.