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Waking dreams

States of Mind Tracing the Edges of Consciousness

Emily Sargent
Wellcome Collection, London
Through 16 October 2016

Dead or alive, asleep or awake, focused or drifting. Consciousness switches on, flickers to the wanderings of the mind, rests, and extinguishes. The borders of sentience are the subject of a compact educational exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London entitled States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness. Artists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers contribute artworks, objects, and knowledge to visualize topics that include synesthesia, somnambulism, dream, trauma, language, and memory.

A sizable portion of the show is archival and enriched with images and documents from the history of neuroscience. The millennial mind-body problem is exposed with an 1808 drawing by Luigi Schiavonetti, entitled The Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life, in which a spirit floats above a human being’s lifeless flesh on a deathbed. Settling the same question in favor of materialism are Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s notable drawings of ramifying brain cells, there to persuade us that it is in the multiplicity of such branching that consciousness forms and resides. These drawings appear next to original notes from molecular biologist turned neuroscientist Francis Crick.

Alphabet in Color, a series of drawings by Jean Holabird, amiably pictures the phenomenon of synesthesia, the involuntary merging of senses that occurs when the stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to the stimulation of another. The Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, a self-described synesthete, attributed colors to the sound of letters.

Individuals with grapheme-color synesthesia perceive color in letters and sounds.lbirke

Individuals with grapheme-color synesthesia perceive color in letters and sounds.

A literally resonating piece by Imogen Stidworthy, entitled The Whisper Heard, displays the link between consciousness, language, and memory. This installation opposes two voices—a child’s and an adult’s—that distort the narration of an excerpt from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the protagonist hears a voice as he emerges from a state of unconsciousness. The child, who is in the process of acquiring language, listens to the story being told and repeats it, although the meaning of some of the terms is still clearly unknown to him. The adult man is a stroke patient who, unable to utter some of the words he hears from the narrator, relies on their meaning and substitutes synonyms instead.

The tenuousness of an individual’s private access to himself or herself and to the external world is further explored in a section dedicated to cases of awareness lost or heavily compromised. Aya Ben Ron’s Shift is an extremely touching, and at times aching to watch, documentary on vegetative consciousness. Shot against the mechanical sound of medical instruments in the head injury department at the Reuth Medical Center in Tel Aviv, Israel, the film narrates the care provided by hospital staff and family members to men and women who are alive but presumably unaware. Compassionate routines of washing, exercise, feeding, and soothing speech punctuate the fragile existence of patients who are immobile and silent. The film renders their altered state of sentience palpable and strident.

It cannot go unnoticed that only yards away from the premises of the Wellcome Collection are the streets in the Bloomsbury area of London where writers such as Virginia Woolf experimented with the “stream of consciousness” literary technique a century ago.

Given the sizable investment that we have made in attempting to pin down the neural correlates of almost every fragment of perception, the ambition to distill the essence of consciousness into elements that are quantifiable and reproducible will not easily recede. In parallel, complementary artistic explorations will likely continue to expose the elusive inscrutability of the subjective flow of thoughts and feelings with equal motivation.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of Joy, Guilt, Anger, Love (Penguin, 2014) and is at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.