Art and science illuminating each other

Harry Farmer visits ‘Self-Impressions with the Institute of Philosophy, University of London’ at the Tate Modern.

14 May 2018

Art and science have often been presented as opposing forces, most notably in C.P. Snow’s famous ‘Two Cultures’ lecture. The cognitive sciences have been particularly affected by this perception, sitting as they do on the divide between viewing ourselves as biological organisms in a physical world and as mental beings with a rich inner life. Indeed, the scientific study of the mind has often been accused of seeking to annex the fundamentals of what it means to be human under a reductionist and scientistic worldview and, in doing so, devaluing the insights into the human condition that great art communicates.

In the past few decades, however, the idea of an unbridgeable divide between art and science has begun to dissolve as increased dissemination of scientific findings into mainstream culture have led artists to examine how the images and concepts produced by cognitive science can inform their work. At the same time many psychologists have come to recognise the value in understanding and taking seriously the power of art, both as a topic of scientific study and as a means of communicating the wonder that our growing understanding of the mind and brain inspire.

This rapprochement was clearly on show in the Self-Impressions event at London’s Tate Modern, which gave researchers a chance to show gallery visitors how cognitive science can shed light on the underlying processes by which art impacts upon us. The project was themed around the boundary between our self and the world with studies examining both how information from our senses can shape our inner life (World to Self) and the means by we project that inner life outwards towards others (Self to World). While I didn’t have a chance to try every study, there were a number of highlights.

The World to Self section contained perhaps the most visually exciting exhibits in the form of a set of ‘meta-perceptual’ helmets devised by the School of Looking. These sleek silver creations, inspired by George Stratton’s famous prism goggles that flipped his subjects viewpoint upside down, are designed to alter your viewpoint in a series of different ways based on the visual abilities of other animals. Perhaps the most interesting was the Chameleon, which allows one eye to view what’s behind you while the other views what’s in front. Wearing this gave me a form of binocular rivalry with my perception constantly shifting between the view in front of me and the view behind and occasionally a superposition of the two. In contrast the Hammerhead Shark helmet, which placed an 80cm gap between each of my eyes, produced a double vision effect for objects in the distance while objects close to me were rendered invisible. It’s unclear whether one’s vision could ever adapt to seeing the world in such a way as Stratton’s subjects are supposed to but it would be interesting to see someone try.

In the Self to World section, one particularly engaging project focused on one of our senses that has traditionally been neglected by both art and science. The aptly named ‘Message Scent’ required one or more people to smell two different perfumes and record  descriptions of them, which were then sent to another person to decode and identify which description matched which scent. I tried this out with my fiancée as the coder and myself as the decoder and was relieved to discover that, thanks more to her descriptive skills than to my powers of olfaction, we had managed to successfully transmit the perfumes.

While these two areas give an idea of some of the flavour of the work on show, there were many more interesting experiments and displays. These included research using eye tracking to see how people discriminated between looking at portraits and self-portraits, a study examining how changes in self-perception made possible by social media affected our tendency to conform to the opinions of others, and research looking at how mothers shared experiences with their own vs. another child.

Having spent several hours participating in different demos and still not getting round to all of them I left the event feeling that Self-Impressions had done a great job at highlighting the ways that art and cognitive science can come together to illuminate each other. Plus they handed out free chocolate, which is always a winning idea at any public engagement event.  

- Reviewed by Dr Harry Farmer, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London