British technology investor Mala Gaonkar and Talking Heads' David Byrne

David Byrne's neuroscience 'Neurosociety' exhibition

Image credit: Catalina Kulczar

When science meets entertainment: David Byrne’s ‘Neurosociety’ uses art to teach us about our brains and takes us on an immersive theatrical experience while he's at it.

Our fascination with the human brain dates back to ancient Egypt, when that spongy, grey, three-pound mass of tissue that just happens to be the most complex living structure in the known universe was routinely drilled and scraped out through a small hole for the scrutiny of ancient scholars.

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system and has broadened out to include the study of the molecular, cellular, developmental, structural, functional, evolutionary, computational and medical aspects of the nervous system. The techniques used by neuroscientists today have also expanded massively, from the molecular and cellular studies of individual nerve cells to the complex imaging of the sensory and motor tasks in the brain.

And what a marvel the human brain is! It has the capacity to store more information than a supercomputer and to create a network of connections that far surpasses any social network. The brain has enabled humans to achieve breathtaking accomplishments from walking on the moon and mapping the human genome through to composing masterpieces of art, literature and music and inventing the World Wide Web.

Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields; natural bedfellows include chemistry, cognitive science, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, medicine and genetics. Then there are associated disciplines such as philosophy, physics and psychology, and its influences on subjects like neuro-education, neuro-ethics and neuro-law. Now, we’re about to witness its confluence with art, theatre and entertainment.

Ex-Talking Heads' frontman David Byrne, in collaboration with British technology investor Mala Gaonkar, is taking neuroscience into the mainstream with an exhibition running at Pace Art + Technology gallery in Menlo Park, California, presenting the emerging work of 15 cognitive neuroscience labs from around the world.

Taking the form of an immersive theatrical experience, ‘The Institute Presents: Neurosociety’ recreates a series of experiments focusing on how the human brain perceives what it senses, comes to conclusions and then acts. The exhibition is the culmination of a two-year project working with 35 neuroscientists, representing labs including those at the Karolinska Institutet, New York University, University College London and Yale University among others.

Beyond his most famous music, recorded as a founder member of new-wave band Talking Heads, Byrne has also had a prolific and wide-ranging career as a solo artist. He’s written and directed feature films, exhibited visual art for decades and published both fiction and non-fiction writing to great acclaim. In this latest venture, the collaborators wanted to explore using audience members’ minds as the very canvas on which to project experiments about perception.

According to Byrne and Gaonkar, “Experiments, we feel, are a form of theatre. We have adopted elements of art installation and immersive theatre to present these experiences in ways we think will be as engaging for others as they have been for us. We travelled and met with many scientists who generously welcomed us, patiently answered our untutored questions and creatively collaborated with us on this project.”

The idea behind the 80-minute show is to use elements of theatre and art to teach viewers about how our brains work and bring cutting-edge research into the mainstream. Byrne added, “In the course of creating The Institute, the work of our partner labs has become both a window and a mirror through which we view ourselves and our larger interactions with the world. We wanted to share these concepts with as many people as possible.”

Byrne and Goankar created a loose narrative for the exhibition that sees small, staggered groups of visitors taken, in a prescribed order, through five room-sized installations. These rooms form the backdrop for scripted interactions that mimic four cognitive experiments, removed from the real laboratory, but from which real data will be collected.

According to the collaborators, each interaction will reveal “how the brain builds a subjective measure of the world and is fundamentally guided by pragmatic concerns anchored in personal experiences.”

Each room advances the narrative further and, like any play, ‘Neurosociety’ is presented in three acts. Act I deals with sensory vocabulary; Act II shows how the meaning we ascribe stacks that vocabulary into our grammar of attention, decision-making and biases; Act III demonstrates how that vocabulary and grammar adjusts our performance and connections with others.

Visitors begin their experience of the exhibition in Room 1/Act 1, where the way they see is tracked and explored through the photoreceptors in their eyes. Flashing lights burst into the room and then disappear, creating the illusion of light and colour in the darkness and what is called the ‘after-effect’.

In normal life, rod photoreceptors are responsible for most of our peripheral vision and for vision under low levels of illumination (e.g. dusk and dawn). They are not good at high-clarity vision, they are not colour sensitive, but are very good at detecting movement (you need to be able to see that lion coming at you, even from the corner of your eye!).

Cone photoreceptors are colour sensitive and underpin our fine acuity vision, but do not work well under low levels of illumination. Act 1 draws on the work of Patrick Cavanaugh, Research Professor at the Vision Sciences Laboratory of Harvard University, and John Reynolds, Professor at the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory, at the Salk Institute, in deciphering the neural mechanisms that enable us to perceive, understand and interact with the world around using methods of visual psychophysics, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, computational modelling and brain imaging.

The idea for Experience 2 - What I see overrides my body’s perception and disrupts my sense of scale – comes from the Group Ehrsson Brain, Body and Self Laboratory, a neuroscience research firm based in Sweden that uses neuroimaging and behavioural methods to study how we come to experience our own body as an object distinct from the environment.

Visitors enter a room in which a doll is topped by two cameras instead of a head. They then don virtual reality headsets in order to see what the doll sees. This has the effect of fooling the brain into adopting the doll’s perspective and transferring their sense of body ownership onto an object – a doll.

Participants sense the change in room scale as a result of taking on the doll’s perspective. Proprioception, our sense of our body, partly determines what we perceive and how we make a picture of the world. Our sense of body can be embodied in others’ bodies. This shows how malleable even proprioception can be by context and how our sense of our bodies overrides and hijacks our visual sense of the scale of the room and its objects.

Room 2/Act II is predicated upon the statement ‘We can predict election outcomes based on appearance’, a timely consideration following the outcome of the recent US election.

At Princeton University, Alexander Todorov ran a set of tests that determined inferences of competence, based solely on the facial appearance of political candidates after a one-second exposure to the faces. With no prior knowledge about the person, the viewer would predict the outcomes of elections for the US Congress.

Todorov showed that such inferences based solely on facial appearance predicted the outcomes of US congressional elections better than chance (68.8 per cent of the Senate races in 2004). ‘Neurosociety’ participants try their hand at predicting the elections results of fictional politicians and get to see for themselves if rapid, unreflective trait inferences from faces influence consequential decisions.

In another part of the installation, visitors get to test their ‘what’ and ‘where’ systems. This experience, part of Act II, is based on the work of David Milner, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Psychology at Durham University, and Melvyn A. Goodale, Director of the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario, who argue that humans possess two distinct visual systems: the ‘what’, asking you to recognise an object, and the ‘where’, asking you the object’s depth and whether it’s moving. Visitors soon realise that an object defined by equiluminant colours can be seen by the ‘what’ system, but is invisible (or poorly seen) by the ‘where’ system.

‘What is good for me might be terrible for us’ - the Act III experience - explores moral dilemmas and is based on the research of Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business, analysing the psychology of morality. Haidt maintains that man is “90 per cent chimp and 10 per cent bee”, his rationale being that we can’t afford orgies of violence and greed as we must live with our fellow chimp/bees in order to survive.

So far, so obvious. However, social dilemmas endlessly arise: on income distribution, on the environment, on managing shared resources such as water and public goods such as health and education, and how your sense of affinity with other human beings affects your moral judgement.

The dilemmas presented to ‘Neurosociety’ visitors are introduced as scenes from TV dramas or real-life news clips, that place them in split-second life-and-death decision-making roles within the setting. The experiment shows participants how malleable our responses are to moral dilemmas depending upon perception of context, and demonstrate flexibility in our moral calculus.

While Byrne and Goankar’s ‘experiments’ draw on real research, Neurosociety’s genius is in its presentation as an art installation/theatre experience, with visitors experiencing neuroscience for themselves in a visceral and entertaining way. The collaborators used their explorations with neuroscience laboratories to engage with the public in science, to spark discussion and evoke a sense of wonder and surprise. With participants’ consent, visitors’ reactions and decisions are anonymised with the potential to be used by the participating labs to further their research.

Each experience reveals how the brain builds a subjective measure of the world and is fundamentally guided by pragmatic concerns anchored in personal experiences.

These responses gradually reveal not only aspects of ourselves, but also how we interact with others, often in counterintuitive and surprising ways. A vast expanse of the human brain still remains an unknown landscape to us, but methods of modern neuroscientific study are shedding increasing light on the workings of the brain - mercifully, all done without a trace of trepanning.

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