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Art, Science, and Folklore Tackle the Mysteries of Human Consciousness

Delve into the oddities of human consciousness at 'States of Mind,' a new exhibit at London's Wellcome Collection.
February 8, 2016, 2:15pm

Still from Squeezed by Shadows, 2013, Carla MacKinnon © the artist

Human consciousness: it's something we all share (some of us more than others), yet barely understand. It's a tricky and enigmatic subject that neuroscience, art, psychology, philosophy, folklore, and religion all attempt to grapple with. The inroads they've made into the topic are the subject of London's Wellcome Collection's latest exhibit, States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness. It follows on from their yellowbluepink experience last year, an installation by Ann Veronica that featured densely colored mists that people attempted to navigate through, which aimed to disorientate and challenge our everyday perceptions.


For this second part of the museum's investigation into consciousness, the exhibition explores some of the trickier phenomena of the human mind, addressing some of the same issues yellowbluepink raised. It also looks at early scientific innovators like Francis Crick—who discovered the structure of DNA molecules—and whose pioneering research into the study of conciousness paved the way for modern neuroscience.

“Consciousness is a fascinating subject, as magical as it is everyday," curator Emily Sargent says in the press release. "We all know what it is like to be conscious, but it remains a challenge to truly define it. This makes it rich territory both for artists and scientists alike.”

Alphabet in Colour by Vladimir Nabokov, as interpreted by Jean Holabird © the artist A

Synesthesia, a popular topic for art and artists, is explored through Vladimir Nabokov's "colored hearing" alphabet which is reproduced as watercolors by American illustrator Jean Holabird. The letters A to Z are presented in the colors that Nabokov "sees" for each one, along with his illustrative descriptions. So "the long A of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood," yet the "French A evokes polished ebony." "B has the tone called Burnt Sienna by painters," there is "creamy D," the "drab shoelace of H," "huckleberry K," the letter V becomes "matched with 'Rose Quartz,'" and there is the "unripe apple of P."


It makes you wonder how this sense of seeing letters as colors informed Nabakov's own writing and reading. And it's also worth noting that research published in 2014 by the University of Sussex says, in some instances, you can train the brain to acquire synesthesia like Nabokov's letter-color parallels.

Goshka Macuga, 'Somnambulist' 2006, Courtesy the artist and Kate MacGarry

Things get creepy in the show when it comes to consciousness and sleep. Sleepwalking is explored with reference to German Expressionist horror masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, where the doctor of the title conditions a sleepwalker, Cesare, to commit murder. Cesare is made into a menacing, lifelike sculpture in an accompanying piece called Somnambulist (2006) by Goshka Macuga—with Dr. Caligari playing beside it on a screen, the eerie figure lies there daring you to turn your back on it, adding a sense of the uncanny and automata in reference to the human mind.

Further creepiness is presented in the form of real murder stories that have happened while people claim to have been sleepwalking. One that happened in 2003 in Manchester, England involves a son who beat his 83-year-old dad to death after they both drank loads of alchohol. The son claimed he remembered none of it and was horrified by his actions. He was eventually cleared of murder.

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781 © Trustees of the British Museum

Further sleep weirdness comes in the form of sleep paralysis, when somebody who is sleeping is semi-conscious but can't move a muscle. It is only temporary, but anyone who's experience will know how freaky it is. It's embodied in the famous painting, The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli which shows an incubus sitting atop a woman's chest. The exhibition also highlights its presence in folklore from various cultures. In Buddishm, it's related to a magical god who uses a metal chain and sword to paralyze evil spirits. In Carla MacKinnon’s installation, Squeezed by Shadows, people who suffer from sleep paralysis recount their terrifying experiences and hallucinations to the sights of disturbing abstract images.


Further demonic embodiments of states of consciousness come when the exhibition looks at the "reversible coma" that is general anaesthetic, the very common medical practice that puts the patient in a bizarre state of mind that "is as close to brainstem death as it is possible to get and survive." A painting from 1912 by Richard Tennant Cooper shows ghouls with large heads attacking an unconscious man with surgical equipment, relating the effects of chloroform.

An unconscious naked man, R Cooper, 1912, credit - Wellcome Library

The unreliability of the human mind and our memories is touched on in A. R. Hopwood's False Memory Archive, which features, among other things, submitted false memories by people that they were convinced were true. "For years I was convinced as a child I had visited Russia with my family. It turned out I had actually been on holiday in Overstand, Norfolk [in the UK]," runs one such example.

Others recall gliding down stairs without touching the steps or seeing actions through others eyes. It highlights how often memories are part-fiction, part-fact, influenced by dreams, films, books, artworks, stories, and anecdotes we hear. In that sense, our recollections are often tainted by the interconnected pathways of the neural brain, clouding our perceptions.

False Memory Archive, Crudely Erased Adults (Lost in the Mall), A.R. Hopwood, 2012-13, Courtesy of the artist

Shift, a film by Aya Ben Ron shows the lives of clinically unaware patients who are in a persistent vegetative state—it differs to a coma in they can respond to stimuli and even smile, but these are considered reflexes rather than conscious acts. Ron's film shows the lives of these people and those that care for them. Scientists don't yet know how much consciousness they experience, but fMRI scanners used with some patients in this condition show that, while in the scanner, they can respond better when asked to imagine performing certain activities. Like, for instance, when asked to play a sport, the fMRI shows their brains responding in the same way as a healthy brain would, and in this way researchers conduct conversations, via the machinery, with them.


It makes for a very informative, inquisitive, yet touching investigation into the strange mystery that is human consciousness. It also shows how personal and subjective it is, and how there's so much we've still got to find out.

Aya Ben Ron, Shift (3 chapters), 29min, DV, 2009-2011

States of Mind: Experiences at the Edge of Consciousness is at the Wellcome Collection, London, NW1 from now until October 16.


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