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The malleability of our minds

A new show about consciousness takes a terrifying look at how scientists, philosophers and artists deal with “the hard problem”

Marina Gerner | February 9th 2016

In the 17th century, Descartes famously argued that the body and mind are two different things. Philosophers have been discussing the difference ever since, and this “mind-body problem” is far from solved. Today, science is still struggling to explain how our soggy grey brains give rise to the subjective experience of love, the taste of chocolate or the colour red. This, said the philosopher David Chalmers, is the “hard problem”, and it’s the subject of a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, “States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness”.

One of Jean Holabird’s colourful letters, inspired by Nabokov’s synaesthesia

The Wellcome Collection is a place where science and the arts meet, and this show is as interdisciplinary as it gets. It looks at how biology, philosophy, art and folklore have understood a range of mental phenomena, from nightmarish hallucinations to the way memories define the self. There are early-20th-century drawings of the nervous system by the Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal. A menacing demon sits on a sleeping woman’s chest in a preparatory drawing by Henry Fuseli (pictured top), created for his painting “The Nightmare” (1781). A Japanese woodblock print from the 17th century depicts the folklore associated with sleep paralysis, known as kanashibari. It shows a Buddhist god who uses a metal chain to paralyse evil spirits.

Entering the first of three spacious, dimly lit rooms, what immediately catches your eye is a series of colourful letters. They are the work of the American illustrator Jean Holabird, and they recreate the alphabet as described by Vladimir Nabokov in his autobiography, “Speak Memory” (1951). He was a synaesthete, who saw letters in specific colours. “The long A of the English Alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood,” he wrote. “Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do with W.” The letter N has the colour of oatmeal, T is pistachio green, and S is a “curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.” Nabokov’s wife and son also experienced “colour-hearing”. 

Recent research has shown that, while synaesthesia has a genetic basis, early play and learning also matter. According to Professor Anil Seth, who was the exhibition’s neuroscientific advisor, some letter-colour pairings, like red and “R”, are more common than others. At Sussex University, he had non-synaesthetic volunteers undergo colour and letter association training for nine weeks. Many of the participants developed synaesthesia-like experiences.

A.R. Hopwood’s photographs explore the phenomenon of false memory

As you move through the exhibition, it turns from curious to terrifying. Scientific footage from a “sleep lab” shows the manic movements of a somnambulist who lashes out in deep sleep. Nearby, a series of newspaper clippings from the Manchester Evening News reports the story of a man who was arrested for killing his father following a night of heavy drinking. During the trial it was revealed that the defendant had been sleepwalking at the time of the murder. The court acquitted him on the grounds of “insane automatis”. 

The power of the show comes not just from the strangeness of these phenomena, but the malleabilty of them. In the final room is a series of photographs by the artist A.R. Hopwood showing people in shopping centres, in which the adults have been erased using Photoshop. The pictures were inspired by the research of Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist. In one of her experiments, Loftus asked an older relative of each volunteer to submit three anecdotes about the volunteer’s childhood. She wrote these stories down and added a made-up memory of how the volunteer got lost in a mall. A booklet of these stories was given to each subject and, when asked to recall their childhood memories in more detail, a third of her respondents said the same thing: they got lost in a shopping centre. 

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